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 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
We extend a warm thank you to the Iowa State University Center for On-Line Learning and the Iowa State University Department of History for their support of this project.
Agricultural Fairs During The Nineteenth Century
Beginning in the early 1800s, the first agricultural fairs gave rural families an opportunity to see first hand the latest agricultural techniques, equipment, crops, and livestock. Over the course of the nineteenth century, fairs also incorporated a wide range of educational, recreational, competitive, and social activities into their programs. Within a few short generations, county and state fairs became a quintessential American tradition.

Agricultural fairs celebrated human progress, science, education, and the agrarian ideal. Before there were state and county fairs, however, most agricultural fairs were held by private individuals and organizations, or agricultural societies. In 1807, Elkanah Watson of Pittsfield, Massachusetts held one of the first agricultural fairs by holding sheep shearing demonstrations in conjunction with traditional market fairs. By the fall of 1811, Watson's sheep shearing had evolved into the Berkshire County Fair, a major production, featuring a procession of "three or four thousand animals," a band, displays of local industries, and artisans. Watson also took careful steps to attract women by offering premiums on domestic products and by holding an annual ball.

Agricultural societies eagerly adopted Watson's model for agricultural fairs, but often faced financial difficulties. During the 1820s and 1830's local agricultural exhibitions floundered because private donations fell short of the money required for premiums, fair grounds, judges, transportation, publicity, and entertainment. Beginning 1840, however, state legislatures across the country formed agricultural boards and allocated funds to agricultural societies, which in turn allowed for larger, more regular exhibitions. In 1841, the first state fair took place in Syracuse, New York. Sponsored by the New York Agricultural Society, the three-day event attracted more than 15,000 people.

Fairs quickly became highly anticipated events across the country. Many farm families adjusted their work schedules as far as a month in advance of the big events in order to earn a few work-free days at the fair. For many people, the fair would mark the first time they saw electric lights and airplanes, and it helped farm families adapt to changing mores and accepted forms of popular entertainment, such as vaudeville. Delia Marcella Locke, for example, was a California fair-goer in the 1850s and 1860s who saw sewing and washing machines, a printing press, and stereoscopic pictures for the first time at her local county fair.

Horseracing proved to be one of the most popular and controversial activities, especially women's horseracing. At the 1854 Iowa State Fair, prizes for women's horseracing included a gold watch, a premium of $165, or a scholarship to study at a nearby seminary for three terms. Yet critics decried the immorality of the sport and the immodesty of female riders. By the late 1860s, fair boards and legislatures across the country limited, or even banned, women's equestrian events.

During the Civil War, the military used state fairgrounds in the Midwest to train soldiers, forcing agricultural societies to either relocate or cancel annual events. Following the Civil War, however, fairs enjoyed a renewed popularity as states increased funding to construct permanent fairgrounds, complete with buildings and a midway. After 1870, political speeches, carnival games, vaudevillian performances, and enticing edibles became part of the fair-going experience.

Since the early 1800s, fairs were about much more than education and amusement; they helped guide rural people through an increasingly modern world, whether it was introducing them to new equipment or forms of entertainment. Even today, fairgoers celebrate agricultural achievements and enjoy exhibitions, food, carnival rides, entertainment, competitions, and well-known concert performers.

Jenny Barker-Devine


Avery, Julie A.
Agricultural Fairs in America: Tradition, Education, Celebration. East Lansing Michigan: Michigan State University, 2000.

Blackburn, Bob.
A History of the Oklahoma State Fair. Oklahoma City: Western Heritage Books, 1994.

Borish, Linda J. "'A fair, with the fair, is no fair at all': Women at the New England
Agricultural Fair in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,"
Journal of Sport History 1997 24(2): 155-176.

"A Brief History of the Wisconsin State Fair." Milwaukee:
Wisconsin State Fair Park, 1993.

Cooper, Susan Fenimore Cooper.
Rural Hours, by a Lady. New York: George P. Putnam, 1851.

Fletcher, Steven Whitcomb. Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1840-1940 (State of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1955).

Gates, Warren J. "Modernization as a Function of an Agricultural Fair: The Great Granger's Picnic Exhibition at Williams Grove, Pennsylvania,"
Agricultural History 1984 58 (3): 262-279.

Goodale, Elaine.
Journal of a Farmer's Daughter. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1881.

Jeffrey, Julie Roy.
The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Jones, David C. "From Babies to Buttonholes": Women's Work at Agricultural Fairs."
Alberta History 29 (4, 1981): 26-32.

Kelly, Catherine E. "'The Consummation of Rural Prosperity and Happiness:' New England Agricultural Fairs and the Construction of Class and Gender, 1810-1860,"
American Quarterly 1997 49(3): 574-602.

Lloyd, Nelson. "The County Fair."
Scribner's 34 (August 1903) 132.

Locke, Delia M. "'Hi-Ho! Come to the Fair!': Early California Fairs,"
Pacific Historian 1985 29(1): 22-29.

Marti, Donald.
Historical Directory of American Agricultural Fairs. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

McLaurin, Melton A. "The Nineteenth-Century North Carolina State Fair as a Social institution,"
North Carolina Historical Review 1982 59(3): 213-229.

Neely, Wayne.
The Agricultural Fair. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935.

Nelson, Derek.
The American State Fair. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing, 1999.

"North Carolina State Fair: A History." Raleigh: North Carolina State Fair, 1997.

Osterud, Nancy Grey.
Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth Century New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press: 1991.

Rasmussen, Chris. "'Fairs here have become a sort of holiday': Agriculture and Amusements at Iowa's County Fairs, 1838-1925,"
Annals of Iowa 1999 58 (1): 1-26.

Rasmussen, Chris. "State Fair: Culture and Agriculture in Iowa, 1854-1941." Ph.D.
Dissertation, Rutgers, 1992.

Ross, Earle D. "The Evolution of the Agricultural Fair in the Northwest."
Iowa Journal of History and Politics 24 (1926) 445-480.

Shanley, Mary Kay.
Our State Fair: Iowa's Blue Ribbon Story. Des Moines: Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation, 2000.

Taussig, Ellen, Lou Ann Delaney, and Matthew Tremblay.
Reflections of America's County Fair, 1841-2000. Erie County, N.Y.: Erie County Agricultural Society, 2001.

Watson, Elkanah.
History of the Rise, Progress, and Existing Condition of the Western Canals in the State of New York… Together with the Rise, Progress, and Existing State of Modern Agricultural Societies, in Readings in American Agriculture, ed. Wayne D. Rasmussen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960.