October 1863

Sanitary fairs in Illinois

The North-Western Soldiers’ Fair, first of the so-called sanitary fairs, welcomed Chicagoans in October 1863. Two-and-a-half years into the war the army suffered a chronic need of special foods, clothing, and medical supplies in great amounts. Mrs. A. H. Hoge and Mary Livermore conceived the idea of a great fair to fill the treasury of the Northwest Sanitary Commission. They and their associates were successful beyond all expectation, taking in about $78,000 beyond expenses, this at a time when privates in the army were paid $13 per month. The Chicagoans’ efforts set the pattern for sanitary fairs large and small across Illinois and the North. Almost numberless festivals in Illinois raised tens of thousands of dollars while providing communities with entertainment and a feeling of patriotic action.


Local fairs
Small-town Illinois fairs shared the motivation that inspired the Chicago event. A call to the public at Pekin (Tazewell County) was typical: “The hospitals made vacant by death….are speedily refilled with new faces which disease and exposure have rendered pallid, and emaciated forms shattered by a gun-shot or shell. I tell you my friends we must continue to pour down our sanitary supplies for those bleeding, suffering soldiers of our country….Who has not some father, brother, or beloved friend in our army? Then awake and think. What can you do? Your hands, however tiny, can work up some little items which will either do to send to our soldier boys or will bring money at our soldier’s fair.”


Overwhelmingly managed by women, fair committees sought donations of cash and goods that could be sold for money. Merchants gave items ranging from farm equipment to clothing and household goods, farmers sent produce, and women created practical items as well as decorative fancy handwork. The donated items then stood for sale at set price, by raffle, or at open auction. Many donations brought far more at auction or raffle than their commercial value.


The 1863 Chicago fair had been able to obtain and display dozens of tattered battle flags of Union regiments as well as captured Confederate flags. Some small local fairs featured a flag carried by local men; almost all of them exhibited at least a few items sent home from the battlefields of the South.

Some of the most special donations for sale came from President Lincoln. The Chicago fair received (with some reluctance on the president’s part) and sold his manuscript of the Final Emancipation Proclamation, which brought $3,000. High-quality copies were soon produced and sold, again to the benefit of soldier relief efforts. Managers in Pekin sold autographed photos of President Lincoln. Mary L. Westerman, an officer of the local aid society, had twice written to the White House asking that the president donate an item for the good cause. On October 10 presidential secretary John Hay sent the persistent lady six signed photos.

Village and town fairs brought in tens of thousands of dollars during 1864 and early 1865. The Southern Illinois Union Sanitary Fair, held in Sparta (Randolph County), raised $1,500. During the fair at Loami (Sangamon County) the Baptist church “was beautifully decorated with pictures and other works of art, tastefully ornamented with evergreens.” The pews had been removed to make space for tables for the sales bazaar. A special feature was a marble sculpture called the “Lincoln grip,” “representing a hand tightly grasping a Copperhead snake with drooping head, life being extinct.” Gatherings at Elmwood (Peoria County), Jacksonville (Morgan County), Ottawa (La Salle County), Galesburg (Knox County), Quincy (Adams County), and scores of other towns and villages brought neighbors together to enjoy themselves and help a good cause.

The Illinois State Sanitary Fair at Decatur
Central Illinois women managed a large sanitary fair to be held in conjunction with the state agricultural fair in Decatur (Macon County) on September 12-17. It was hoped that the fair “will reach more generally all classes of citizens than any yet devised. It will occur at the great gala season of our agricultural population, when the labors of the tiller of the soil have been crowned with the fruits of the year.”

Booths in the bazaar department were open to any society wishing them. A kind of official uniform for salespersons was adopted and women were requested “to wear a flag apron of red and white stripes, with shield-shaped waist of blue, ornamented with stars. These aprons can be purchased of the Decatur Aid Society at the Bazaar….” Men involved in running departments wore a red, white, and blue rosette. Donations of all kinds poured in. The Springfield Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society suspended other work in order to devote its efforts to the fair, operating a restaurant which served donated foods. It appears that a female scam artist sought cash donations by claiming a connection to the fair.

The fair building held several booths. One refreshment stand run by Champaign County women—called the “Champaign booth”—led “leading temperance folks to outrage until their idea is corrected.” A popular display consisted of “the old war-worn battle flags of our glorious regiments from the field. These glorious old banners, representing the trials … the life-blood of our glorious boys, freely given and poured out for their country, with what interest they are gazed upon and how many tears wet the cheeks of the gazers as they think of husbands, sons, fathers and brothers who died beneath their folds.”

Women worked at the booths and food stands to the point of exhaustion. Camp Butler hospital matron Sarah Gregg reported that on one day 20,000 people visited the fair, over 2,400 of whom took meals from the ladies. A few days later she wrote in her diary: “Am very tired. Worked too hard at the sanitary fair at Decatur. We ladies were obliged to sleep on straw while at the fair for one week and on our feet all day waiting on tables.” Their efforts were not in vain—the fair realized over $30,000.

During the war much of public life became to some degree political. Illinois sanitary fairs were not immune. It was remembered that Mrs. Westerman and “several of the Democratic ladies of the committee” managing the Pekin fair intended that the proceeds be used to purchase hospital clothing and medicine. Another group within the society urged that the funds be given to buy “tracts and Testaments, thinking… the presentation of a tract… would be more consoling to the dying soldiers than a soft bed and healing medicine.” Mrs. Westerman quickly hired an attorney to seek an injunction against spending of the money for tracts. She made her point—local businessmen soon “insisted” that the money be spent on hospital supplies.

The state sanitary fair at Decatur also could not escape politics. Democratic newspapers charged that no prominent representatives of the party had been invited to have any role in the fair, and that “the event was an Abolition institution; designed by Abolitionists, controlled by Abolitionists, managed throughout by a disgracefully partizan manner, and in no sense worthy of the patronage of any Democrat. It was… carried through not for the benefit of the soldiers, but to make capital for the Abolition State ticket” in the November 1864 elections. “There was not a democrat present whose feelings were not outraged by this insulting and indecent appeal for votes.”

Another Chicago fair
Another huge Chicago sanitary fair held in May 1865 largely closed the book on such gatherings in Illinois. Planning began months in advance of the event, encouraged by a feeling that military victory finally was within reach. Those hopes were realized by the surrender of the major armies of the Confederacy in April. The murder of President Lincoln and the memorial observances that fallowed cast a pall over Illinois and most of its citizens. By the fair’s opening in late May spirits had begun to revive, spurred in part by the return of at least some troops to their homes in Illinois and other Midwestern states. Once again tattered flags, many stained with the blood of those who carried them, bore testimony to the losses of the last four years. Once again thousands flocked to eat a meal prepared in an “old fashioned” kitchen, to buy an attractive piece of a lady’s handwork.

Interested in learning more?
The use of special events to raise funds for charitable purposes, both before and during the war, is discussed in Beverly Gordon, Bazaars and Fair Ladies: the History of the American Fundraising Fair (1998). A contemporary account of the Chicago fair of 1863 which includes detailed lists of donations is History of the North-western Soldiers’ Fair (1864) found at .
For Chicago see also Christopher J. Schnell, “Mary Livermore and the Great Northwestern Fair,” Chicago History 4 (1975): 34-43. The activities of local fairs were often reported in Illinois newspapers, mention of others can be found in early county histories. The recollection of Jane Johns, a leading manager of the Decatur fair of 1864, is in Jane Martin Johns, Personal Recollections of Early Decatur, Abraham Lincoln, Richard J. Oglesby and the Civil War (1912), found at .
A digital version of the Missouri History Museum’s exhibition on the state’s role in the Civil War, which contained many artifacts relating to the 1864 Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair held in St. Louis, is found at