November 1, 1863/2013
Volume 4, Issue 44 (160 Issues Since 15 October 2010)
The Sanitary Commission, Precursor of the Red Cross, Begins Sanitation Fairs throughout the North to Raise Money and Supplies
October 31, 1863.
The Sanitary Commission
, a women’s volunteer organization that was the precursor of the Red Cross, provided support and supplies for soldiers in the field and in hospitals that would be provided by the government itself in future decades. In 1863 and 1864 the Commission hit upon an effective new way to raise funds and collect homemade materials for soldiers — Sanitary Fairs. In 1866 historian Frank Moor wrote, “No feature of the war was more extraordinary than that series of Sanitary Fairs that were so wonderfully successful in producing abundant supplies for the Commission. . . .”The first was in Chicago. Other fairs followed, spurred in part by civic pride and regional rivalry. On October 31, 1863 a letter to the editor appeared in the Cincinnati Times from a Mrs. Elizabeth Mendenhall: “I wish to call the attention of the patriotic ladies of Cincinnati to the fair that is now progressing in Chicago for the benefit of the soldiers, and which is realizing a handsome sum of money. Taking into consideration the fact that the winter is fast approaching, and that the soldiers will stand in need of much assistance, would it not be well for our Cincinnati ladies to rouse themselves in the same cause, and in the same way? We should not let Chicago, or any other place, be in advance of us in our efforts. I know we have ladies here who are devoted friends of the soldiers, and now is the time for them to be up and doing.”
An organizing meeting was held, and, building and expanding on the model pioneered in Chicago, the Cincinnati fair established an ambitious and successful model that was effected there and in other parts of the country. Cincinnati’s Sanitary Fair was considered the true beginning of the Sanitary Fairs, which raised over $5 million in a little more than a year.
A scene from the Great Western Sanitary Fair in Cincinnati on December 21, 1863. Image courtesy Harper’s Weekly.
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council executive director
Women of the War, by Frank Moore (1866), pp. 576-79.
The United States Sanitary Commission Records Processing Project, New York Public Library