The Great Central Fair

Every month or two at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a new document display goes up in the lobby. Each display has a theme and contains HSP’s sources that relate to that topic. Currently, there is a WWI display  to commemorate the centennial of the start of the war. Next month, the display theme will be the Great Central Fair, also known as the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair. What is a Sanitary Fair, you ask? What made this fair so “great”?  Well, let me tell you.

A lithograph of the Great Central Fair. HSP owns two copies, and one will be shown in the display.

A lithograph of the Great Central Fair. HSP owns two copies, and one will be shown in the display.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission was a precursor to the Red Cross and was founded in 1861 to help support the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union army during the Civil War. Their main fundraisers were Sanitary Fairs, public fairs held in major cities that raised money for the soldiers. The fairs were held successfully in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Boston, before it was decided to hold one in Philadelphia in 1864. The buildings of the Fair were constructed in a mere 40 days in what is currently Logan Square. The Fair opened on June 7th, 1864, and closed three weeks later, on June 28th. The Fair included displays of art and historical relics and  vendors selling various items. 9,000 people attended per day, on average. In total, the Fair raised over $1,000,000, an incredible amount of money in 1864.

A pass check from the Great Central Fair. Found in United States Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch Collection, HSP.

A pass check from the Great Central Fair. Found in United States Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch Collection, HSP.

Over the last few weeks, another intern and I have been working on this display. We have looked through HSP’s collections on the Great Central Fair and have pulled items that are important and visually appealing. Looking through all this stuff from the Civil War era was exciting, and we never knew what we were going to find. One day, we found a blank invitation card from George and Martha Washington. We were not sure where it come from or why it was there. Later, we found a similar one in another collection, and it turns out that someone had donated the original plate, and copies were made and sold at the fair.

At the Fair, people paid $1 to vote for their favorite Union general. The general with the most votes received this sword.

At the Fair, people paid $1 to vote for their favorite Union general. The general with the most votes received this sword. Found in United States Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch Collection, HSP.

By far the biggest event of the Fair was the visit of Abraham Lincoln on June 16th. He came with his wife and son, made a speech, and donated 48 signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, which were sold for $10 each.  One of these copies currently resides at HSP, and will be part of the display.

In addition to selling signed copies of the Proclamation for $10, it seems that  a manuscript version was given away in a contest. Not much is known about this contest or what happened to the manuscript afterwards.

In addition to selling signed copies of the Proclamation for $10, it seems that a manuscript version was given away in a contest. Not much is known about this contest or what happened to the manuscript afterwards.

The display opens in mid-August, and HSP is located on the corner of 13th and Locust in Philadelphia. Come see it!

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One Response to The Great Central Fair

  1. Emily Cronin says:

    It’s hard to imagine a President signing the Emancipation Proclamation to be sold at $10 a pop. Fascinating.

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