From the fall of 1863 through 1865, the North was host to a profusion of fund-raising fairs designed to fill the coffers of the UNITED STATES SANITARY COMMISSION (USSC) and its many local branches. Although women were the principal movers and shakers of these multi-day and often multi-week events, men eagerly participated, and in many cities and towns they shared the burden of executing the events with women. These “sanitary fairs, ” as they were known, sold donated items of every description, provided entertainments, and operated restaurants to feed the legions of fair visitors. The sanitary fairs appeared at a time when the North was beginning to rejoice over a number of the Union army’s decisive victories. By projecting a mood of hopeful celebration, the fairs motivated citizens throughout the North to contribute to the effort to achieve a final victory. The fairs were also important because they enabled Northern women to express their patriotism in the public sphere rather than the domestic arena, as had typified much of their previous war work.
For decades before the Civil War, fund-raising fairs and bazaars had been one of the most common ways for women in church benevolent and social reform organizations to raise money for charitable or for social and political causes. Female members of the antislavery societies kept their organizations solvent and their male lecturers in the field by offering annual bazaars. Hosting fairs was a socially accepted means for women to act in the public sphere. Based on this prewar precedent, during the early months of the Civil War, women naturally turned to the staging of festivals, fairs, concerts, and parties to raise money to provide goods for departing soldiers.