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Friday, March 16, 2012

1864: The Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, Part 1

Founded after the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States Sanitary Commission was a relief agency that took as its mission the supply of food, potable water, clean clothing, bandages, hospital equipment, bedding, writing supplies, and postage to soldiers in the Union Army. It was directed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, known today as one of the principal designers of Central Park and Prospect Park.

In an appeal sent to northern states on June 21, 1861, the Sanitary Commission stated that “four soldiers die of diseases incident to camp life for one that falls in battle… Sanitary measures, prudently devised and thoroughly executed, will do more to economize the lives of our soldiers, and thus save the nation men, money, and time, than could be effected by any improvement in the arms put into their hands.”

A New York weekly featuring illustrations from the Fair
While male soldiers fought and died on the battlefield, women were central to the workforce of the Sanitary Commission, working in the laundry, or as cooks, seamstresses and, especially, nurses. At the height of the Civil War, almost 3,000 nurses were working in makeshift Union hospitals—many of them volunteers. (Superintendent of Army Nurses, activist Dorothea Dix, insisted that her nurses be “past 30 years of age, healthy, plain almost to repulsion in dress and devoid of personal attractions.”) Women were also the driving force behind what were referred to as “Sanitary Fairs.” Organized via a network of women’s charitable societies, Sanitary Fairs held in cities across the northern states raised over $25 million for the relief of sick and wounded Union soldiers.

After a collaboration with their New York counterparts was postponed, Brooklyn women, representing various relief societies, took it upon themselves to erect their own fair. Housed at the original Brooklyn Academy of Music premises on Montague Street, the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair ran from February 22 to March 8, 1864, and raised over $400,000, the highest sum of any Sanitary Fair in the country up to that time. 

The two objects pictured here, along with many others from the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, are currently on view in From Brooklyn to the World, the archival exhibition celebrating BAM's 150th anniversary.

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