Women’s Contributions from the Home Front
The United States Sanitary Fair Movement
During the Civil War, many women made flags and similar items to sell in hopes of raising money to aid Union troops. Beginning in 1863, American women began organizing “sanitary fairs,” fundraising spectacles intended to raise funds for the United States Sanitary Commission. This federal agency oversaw soldiers’ everyday “sanitary interests,” providing food, clothing, housing, transportation, and care for the sick and wounded.
Although it is unclear whether she made this flag for the fair, Martha Ovington undoubtedly knew about the fair and perhaps even attended the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, held over two weeks in February 1864.
Largely organized by Long Island–area volunteers from the local Women’s Relief Association, the fair was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in two neighboring, built specifically for the fair. The event was both a fundraiser and a community morale booster, providing a diversion from the war. There was an art gallery, agricultural displays, and a popular exhibition designed to resemble a New England kitchen.
Through solicited donations, ticket sales, and goods sold, the fair raised over $403,000, more than any similar sanitary fair held to that point.
The Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair lasted only two weeks, but many of the curiosities and historical documents displayed during the event were preserved by the Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society). In February 1864, LIHS was barely a year old, and its founders recognized the fair as an unprecedented collecting opportunity. In a written plea to their members, they asked, “Will you not, among your purchases, remember our Society and procure for us a Picture, a Volume, a Collection of Autographs, a Set of Coins, a Piece of old Armor, Furniture, Costume—any thing, indeed, which is curious and ancient, and which will contribute to illustrate the Past.”
The request from LIHS proved successful with local donors. Today the BHS collection includes artifacts and documents of local and national importance brought into the institution from the fair.