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The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

Sanitary Fairs and the Albany Relief Bazaar

From the earliest days of the Civil War, northern civilians sought ways to contribute to the war effort.  1861 saw the establishment of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC)1, ostensibly a philanthropic humanitarian organization with the goal of bringing modern medical relief to soldiers in the battlefield.  Through an adjunct agency, the Women's Central Relief Association, the commission established a national network to distribute the many products of soldiers' aid societies—bandages, clothing, food, etc.  A philanthropic purpose notwithstanding, the commission was led by men of strong political convictions who understood their work as a way to forge a sense of national patriotism and support for the war effort.

Between 1863 and the end of the war one of the chief public means of generating financial support for the work of the USSC was the holding of "sanitary fairs" in the cities and towns throughout the northern states.  Largely coordinated by committees of upper-class society women in the various host cities, the fairs included elements as diverse as sales or auctions of donated goods, balls, receptions, parades, expositions (especially featuring military- and/or patriotic-themed displays), lotteries, and food concessions. Admission prices would range from 25 cents for a single day to five dollars for a "season" pass. Fairs would last from a few days to several weeks. Overall the total raised through sanitary fairs reached almost $4.5 million.

The first sanitary fair was held at Lowell, Massachusetts in February 1863.  However, it was the October 1863 fair held in Chicago—dubbed "The Northwestern Soldiers' Fair"—that popularized the concept, and became the model for other cities, including Albany.  One important—and frequently copied—feature of the Chicago fair was the organizers' reliance on pre-existing networks of women in charitable societies.  Albany was no exception to this pattern in the planning of its grand 1864 extravaganza, the "Army Relief Bazaar."

The Albany Army Relief Association (ARA) met for the first time on November 2, 1861.  "Mrs. Governor Morgan" (Eliza Matilda Morgan) presided over the meeting and "Mrs. William Barnes" (Emily Weed Barnes) was named the new organization's recording secretary.2 The minutes of the executive committee indicate that from 1861 to 1863 the association, true to its stated aims, worked to solicit donations of funds and supplies through direct appeals to local residents, businesses and organizations.  The proceeds were sent to the USSC for distribution.

In late 1863, the executive committee of the ARA began considering the possibility of holding a fair or bazaar to generate greater community interest, and amplify its already successful fundraising efforts. From that point through the early spring of 1864, the Army Relief Bazaar became the association's chief activity.  The planning and arrangements for the fair were taken over by a special committee headed by the leading political and businessmen of Albany and the surrounding communities.

The bazaar opened to the public on February 22, 1864, and closed on March 30.  It was held in specially constructed buildings in Academy Park.  The central halls of the fair were lined with an odd assortment of national and regional booths depicting the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Schenectady, Spain and Japan, Troy, the Aborigines, Gypsies, Italy, Russia, and Saratoga Springs, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland and "the Orient." There was a Floral Hall, a substantial "curiosity shop," a grand dining hall, a military trophy room, a perfumery (naturally co-located with the French booth), an orchestra or speakers' stand, a fair post office (which issued its own specially-printed stamps),3 and an autograph booth. The fair issued its own satirical newspaper, The Canteen.  In its first issue, dated February 22, 1864, The Canteen, in a burst of hyperbole, declared that the fair had magically risen like the palace of Aladdin, and when the interior arrangements are perfected it will rival the oriental halls in its crowning splendors.  The festoons and overhanging arches of evergreens, the rich display of colors, the fair ladies adorned with the varied costumes, the battle-scarred banners as they have come from war's embrace. And the whole brilliantly illuminated with a blaze of gas issuing in countless jets will form a scene of rare and dazzling beauty.4

The income derived from sales at these attractions—as well as from general admissions was substantial.5  Throughout the Bazaar, lotteries were held to raise additional funds.  Drawings were held at all of the booths.  For instance, in the first week, the Shaker Booth raffled a Shaker doll; the Indian booth, an inlaid portfolio (won by poet and one-time State Librarian, Alfred B. Street);6 the Swiss booth, a music box and a cuckoo clock.  Without question, however, the most important prize to be raffled at the bazaar would be the hand-written preliminary draft of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

"With the President's Permission..." How New York Acquired the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was written by Paul Mercer which is located in The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and related documents from the collections of the NYS Library.


1 This overview of the USSC and the sanitary fair phenomenon is based on Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), and on Alvin Robert Kantor and Marjorie Sered Kantor, Sanitary Fairs: A Philatelic and Historical Study of Civil War Benevolence. (Glencoe, Illinois: SF Publishing, 1992).

2 Albany Army Relief Association. Journal, 1861-1869. New York State Library Manuscripts and Special Collections, BD13614.  As the journal notes, the meetings were held in the mayor's office. Although he was not formally part of the organization, the Mayor's influence—not to say his direct involvement in the early meetings—was an indication of the extent to which this women-directed organization was controlled by the male-dominated political establishment of the time.

3 For a discussion of the philatelic aspect of sanitary fairs, see Alvin Robert Kantor and Marjorie Sered Kantor, Sanitary Fairs: A Philatelic and Historical Study of Civil War Benevolence. (Glencoe, Illinois: SF Publishing, 1992).

4 The Canteen (Albany, NY), No. 1, February 22, 1864, p. 1-2

5 In its first two days, the Bazaar raised $6,239 (more than $85,000 in current value). By the time it closed, it was reckoned that more than $100,000 was taken in.

6 Drawings were reported regularly in the pages of The Canteen.

Sanitary Fairs and the Albany Relief Bazaar Gallery

Bazaar Poster with name and information in the center with a list of committee members surrounded by vignettes of the Albany port, portraits, and scenes of the bazaar grounds

Albany Relief Bazaar Poster

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, BRO0016+

Larger version of the poster (PDF, 2.37 MB)

Closeup of a scene of the crowded front entrance of the bazaar

Enlargement of the lower-left scene of the Albany Relief Bazaar Poster

Patrons line up outside the entrance of the bazaar entry gate with an American flag flying behind the building. 

'American Relief Bzaar' on a sign atop the entrance.

New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, BRO0016+

Larger version of the poster (PDF, 2.37 MB)

Vignette portrait of Mrs. Emily Weed Barnes with her name written on the bottom

Mrs. Emily Weed Barnes

From: Albany Army Relief Association. Journal, 1861-1869. New York State Library Manuscripts and Special Collections, BD13614

Front page of The Canteen newsletter with text describing the event and a diagram of the bazaar

The Canteen newsletter, published during the Albany Army Relief Bazaar

From: The Canteen. Albany, NY, 1864. No. 1 (February 22, 1864), p. 1.

Digitized version of The Canteen newsletter (PDF, 28.47 MB), containing twelve issues published between February 22 and March 5, 1864.