Sanitary Fairs

Four sources that demonstrate the scope and scale of the Sanitary Fairs organized by Union women.

Lithograph of the main building of the Great North Western Sanitary Fair

Great North Western Sanitary Fair main building, 1865. Chicago History Museum, Chicago History Museum, Gift of Geo. H. Laflin, Esq, ICHi-63123.

Burden’s Booth

Burden’s Booth, second Northwestern Sanitary Fair, undated. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-15123.

Diorama from the Northwest Sanitary Fair

Diorama from the Northwest Sanitary Fair, 1863 or 1864. Chicago History Museum, Gift of Marie S. Gale, given in memory of Daniel Warren Gale, II,1953.358.

“Any holder but a Slaveholder,” potholder

“Any holder but a Slaveholder,” potholder, undated. Chicago History Museum, Gift of Mrs. Hugh C. Crowgy and Mrs. W.A. O’Bannon, Jr., 1969.1737.


The first Sanitary Fair was held in Chicago, Illinois, in 1863. Called the Northwestern Soldier’s Fair, this two-week event raised about $80,000 to benefit the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The fair was organized by women. The crafts, food, and entertainment for sale at the fair were mostly created and provided by women. All the money earned was used to support the care of wounded and sick soldiers. 

However, the U.S. Sanitary Commission was led by men, many of whom did not like the autonomy shown by the women organizing the Chicago fair. But lead organizers Mary Livermore and Jane Hodge believed that it was important to empower women so they could help their communities. Their example inspired women in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere to hold their own fairs. 

The hard work of the Sanitary Fair organizers paid off. In August 1865, the president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission acknowledged that the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised at the fairs was crucial to their efforts to support hospitals and troops throughout the war. 

About the Image

These four sources provide a sense of the work done by women for the Chicago Sanitary Fairs held between 1863 and 1865. The lithograph of the main building and the photograph of a fair booth illustrate the scale and scope of the fairs and the massive efforts necessary to make them a success. The diorama and the potholder are two examples of crafts that were made by women for the fairs. They show how women participants used their skills and talents to advance the Union cause of the Civil War.


  • lithograph: A type of printed picture first invented in the late 1800s.
  • Sanitary Fair: A large fair that raised money to support the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
  • U.S. Sanitary Commission: A private agency created by the U.S. government to support wounded and sick soldiers. 

Discussion Questions

  • What can you infer about Sanitary Fairs by examining these sources?
  • Why were Sanitary Fairs crucial to Union war efforts?
  • What challenges did women face in organizing these fairs?
  • How did these women safely express their political beliefs without overstepping the bounds of nineteenth-century womanhood?

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Source Notes