History of Fairs

American Fairs & Exhibitions

The history of fairs is clouded, and the record is less than complete. Nonetheless, the story of humanity is replete with references to fairs, not in an institutional context but as a part of everyday social intercourse. A casual observer might conclude that fairs and exhibitions came fresh out of eighteenth-century Western Europe, delivered to the colonial docks of Boston and Halifax with a predisposed mission to serve agriculture and animal husbandry.

The Origin of Fairs

This observation fits with our collective sense of tradition but fails to recognize centuries of historical linkage to the eastern Mediterranean before the birth of Christ. Old and New Testament references to fairs are mixed with allusions to commerce, trade, the marketplace, festivals, religious feasts, and holy days.

Where and when the first fair was held is unknown; however, evidence points to fairs as early as 500 BC. Scripture records in the book of Ezekiel: “Tarshish was thy merchant because of the multitude of the kinds of riches with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded in thy fairs.” Ezekiel’s account of the destruction of Tyre, supposedly written about 588 BC, describes Tyre as an important market and fair center.

Fairs were commercial from the beginning. Merchants from distant countries would come together, bringing native wares to trade with one another, and even though it is not clearly explained in Ezekiel or other biblical references, it is reasonable to assume that “fair” was the name given to the place at which early trading between foreign merchants was conducted.

It is equally clear that religious activity was a companion to commerce. The Latin word “feria,” meaning holy day, would appear to be the logical root of the word “fair.” Each feria was a day when many people would assemble for worship. Worship in those early days was centered around temples in great cities, including Ninevah, Athens, Rome, and Mecca. These cities were also respected as the great commercial centers of the world. Fields adjacent to these temples were staked out for traders. Religious figures were placed in the fields to protect the traders and merchants.

During the early Christian era, the church took an active part in sponsoring fairs on feast days, and as a result, fairs came to be a source of revenue for the church. Possibly, our modern church bazaars possess some rudiments of these religious fairs.

This evolution, which blended religion and commerce, continued over time and moved into Western Europe. Periodic gatherings brought together the producers of all types of commodities for barter, exchange, and, finally, outright sale. To this marketplace were added entertainment and other forms of activity; thus, these primitive markets took on the aspect of fairs as we know them today.

Fairs in the New World

In 1765, less than 300 years after Columbus finished his work in the New World, the first North American fair was presented in Windsor, Nova Scotia. The Hants County Exhibition continues to operate today under the guidance of the Windsor Agricultural Society. In upper Canada, as Ontario was known in early Confederation, a fair was held in 1792, sponsored by the Niagara Agricultural Society. As with Windsor, the Niagara Fair remains in operation today. In addition, many small fairs were held during the early 1700s in French Canada while under French rule.

Similarly, in the not-yet formed United States, a fair was chartered in York (Pennsylvania) in 1765 and existed as a 2-day agricultural market.

However, the concept of the “county fair,” organized by an agricultural society, was initiated by Elkanah Watson, a New England patriot and farmer. He earned the title “Father of US agricultural fairs” by organizing the Berkshire Agricultural Society and creating an event (known then as a Cattle Show) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in September 1811. It was not a market and was more than just an exhibit of animals – it was a competition, with prize money ($70) paid for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine, and sheep.

Watson worked diligently for many years, helping communities organize their agricultural societies and their respective shows (fairs). By 1819, most counties in New England had organized their agricultural societies, and the movement was spreading into the other states. The nineteenth century closed with almost every state and province having one or more agricultural fairs or exhibitions.

Modern Fairs

The core elements of those agricultural society events of the early 1800s – those early fairs – are at the heart of the agricultural fair in North America today. Competition for the best agricultural and domestic products of the county or community (or region or state), an annual celebration for the community to come together, share, and learn.

Today, about 2,000 fairs are held in North America each year. Additionally, agricultural fairs can be found throughout the United Kingdom, in Australia, Mexico, and other countries. They provide industrial exhibits, demonstrations, and competitions to advance livestock, horticulture, and agriculture, emphasizing educational activities such as 4-H, FFA, and similar youth development programs. Most fairs also provide exceptional educational activities to help today’s consumer understand the importance of farming and the food source on their plate. While enjoying these high-minded pursuits, fair visitors can also see, hear, touch, smell, and taste the richness and variety of what the world has to offer.