A Brief Account of the Children’s Aid Fairs
“The work of Charity is ever a work of pleasure, and the great work of charity to sustain that noblest development of this cruel war, the Sanitary Commission, in which we are all now enlisted, is bringing pleasures in its train we had never anticipated. A movement which so thoroughly enlists the sympathy of all classes, and all ages, from the millionaire to the poor sewing woman; from the grandsire to the school girl, was perhaps, never before witnessed. All are doing something, contributing each according to his or her means or opportunities; and what an amount of latent power to do good has thus been developed. How many new ways of assisting in the good work have been discovered. All that is asked is that each shall contribute of what they have; if they are not blessed with riches, then give of their talents, their art, their skill, and there are none too poor but can contribute in some of these ways to the work in hand.”
~The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 23 January 1864
One interesting aspect of the American Civil War is the degree to which everyday citizens became involved in the war effort. All across the nation, from areas directly affected by the battles, to areas far removed from the conflict’s front, ordinary citizens came together in a multitude of ways to support “our boys”—regardless of the color of “our boy’s” uniform.
The Aid Fair was not a new idea; expositions and fairs had become a popular means of fundraising and entertainment in the first half of the century. It was natural, then, to use the arrangement of a Fair as a means of raising the funds and supplies needed for the war effort on both sides.
With usually modest admission charges, fascinating displays of science, commerce, art, and engineering, music, dancing, good food, political stumping and social lectures, and innumerable trinkets, flowers, and fancy items for purchase, the Fair setting was both an interesting and effective way to garner attention, as well as provide a brief diversion from the harsher realities of daily life. For a few moments, all was well with the world—even as the crippled veteran urging passersby to loose the bands of their wallets at the various booths tugged at the patriotic heart.
While information on the southern fairs is more limited, a good number of newspapers, journals, and memoirs give accounts of Northern fairs. Even small children were not exempt from fair charity, through a little amusement called “The Children’s Fair.” Children’s Fairs were generally one of two types: the at-home fair, and the Children’s Department of a larger exposition fair.
The at-home fair was an “exposition” party for children, by children, with “booths” for games, refreshments, displays, and purchases. Mary Livermore, in her memoirs of the war years, records that the summer of 1863 saw a boom in the popularity of such festivities, organized and manned by children between nine and sixteen years, which resulted in a contribution to the Sanitary Commission offices of her region of nearly $300 cash in a single two week period. She describes the arrangement of an at-home children’s fair, to which she was invited:
“These juvenile fairs were held on the lawns of private houses, or, if it rained, in the large parlours, and they became immensely popular among the little people.
“A boy of eleven stood at the gate as custodian, gravely exacting and receiving the five cents admission fee. Another little chap, of ten, perambulated the sidewalks for a block or two, carrying a banner inscribed, “Sanitary Fair for the Soldiers!” and drumming up customers for his sisters under the trees. ‘Here’s your Sanitary Fair for sick and wounded soldiers!’ he shouted, imitating the candy vendor who was licensed to sell his wares from a stand just around the corner. ‘All kinds of fancy goods, in the newest style, and cheap as dirt, and all for the soldiers! Walk up and buy, ladies and gentlemen, walk up!’
“The fair tables were spread under the trees, with an assortment of toilet-mats, cushions, needle-books, pen-wipers, patriotic book-marks, dolls, and confectionery. The national colors floated over the little saleswomen, some of the very smallest sitting in high dinner-chairs, and all conducting their business with a dignity that provoked laughter. Big brothers and sisters stood behind them, ostensibly to assist in making change, but in reality because they enjoyed the affair. The mimic traders stoutly resented their interference, declaring ‘they could make change themselves.’ One of the little gypsies shook back her yellow curls, and, lifting her sunny face to the assembled buyers, announced that ‘they’d dot twenty-free dollars already, and the fair hadn’t but just begun.’”1
She goes on to mention children’s letters arriving daily at the Sanitary Commission offices, containing the small and precious sums collected from fairs throughout the region. (Having noted the commercial enthusiasm generated by a modern lemonade stand, one can only speculate at the fervor with which these youngsters engaged in their worthwhile entrepreneur endeavors!)
Children also played a role in the larger, adult Fairs; many organizers provided for a Children’s Department, filled with toys, novelties, games, and child-sized concessions. After all, what parent would be tight with the purse strings, with such interesting offerings, and all the funds going to such a good cause? Raffles and games of chance on more expensive goods (such as fancy china dolls with complete wardrobes, or deluxe machines to delight small boys) provided yet another way to entertain, excite, and fund the efforts of the Commission.
One observer described the Children’s Department of the Great Central Fair (Logan Square, Philadelphia, PA, in June of 1864): the department was given fully half of one building, with fourteen sales tables along both sides, the tables covered in white muslin (a sheer cotton cloth). The walls displayed green-painted mottoes, including “Every child who buys a toy, heals the wound of some brave boy.”2
As part of the effort of the second large Chicago fair toward the end of the war, another notable activity focused on children. A Chicago publisher, Mr. Sewell, had engraved and printed pictures of “the Wisconsin War Eagle, Old Abe,” an American eagle presented to Company C of the Eighth Wisconsin. Old Abe accompanied the men for three years, taking part in twenty-two battles, and thirty skirmishes, taking wounds in three engagements. A particularly intelligent bird, Old Abe learned to respond to commands, and his excited frenzy during any battle served to boost the morale of the men.
Pictures of the bird were sold by children at ten cents each; depending on the number sold, the children earned rank in the “Army of the American Eagle.” One picture sold earned the child the rank of private; ten, a corporal; fifty, a first lieutenant; one hundred ($10), the rank of captain—all the way up to the rank of Major-General, for sales amounting to $400. Children all across the country participated, and some twelve thousand letters were received at the Sanitary Fair offices. Net profits to the Sanitary Commission from this army of children amounted to $16,308.98, nationwide.3
Children’s Fairs have great potential as a living history activity. While not appropriate for “battle” events, a Fair offers a wonderful citizen-based opportunity for military and citizen interaction, as well as the involvement of spectators, all combined with actual fundraising settings for modern preservation needs. Whether undertaken as an “at-home” fair, by children and for children, or as a Children’s Department in a larger Sanitary Commission Fair setting, the addition of several cloth-draped tables devoted to childhood will be appreciated by all, now as then.
1 Mary Livermore, My Story of the War (Da Capo Press, 1995), p152-154
2 Charles J. Stille, Memorial of the Great Central Fair (Philadelphia, 1864); portions reprinted in Miss Flora McFlimsey of Madison Square by Ann Bahar (Doll Reader Magazine, May 1990).
3 Mary Livermore, My Story of the War (Da Capo Press, 1995), p 623-628
Mary Livermore is a generally interesting figure of mid-century womanhood. Google Books has her autobiography here.