Main Building of the Great North Western Sanitary Fair, Chicago

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Main Building of the Great North Western Sanitary Fair, Chicago
Louis Kurz, Lithographer:  Baker & Co.
Louis Kurz: 1833-1921
16 x 21 5/8 in.
Chicago History Museum, Gift of Geo. H. Laflin, Esq.

In front of the large, church-like building at the center of this image, lithographer Louis Kurz places two soldiers riding proudly down Michigan Avenue. At the left, crowds of civilians line up to enter The Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair and purchase goods that benefit soldiers at the front, as well as veterans who had been wounded. At the far right, you can see a sign for the “Soldier’s Home,” a charitable institution founded by the United States Sanitary Commission to house wounded soldiers. 

The Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair was the second fair held in Chicago by the United States Sanitary Commission. The first--the Northwestern Soldiers’ Fair--took place in the autumn of 1863 and raised nearly $100,000 to support Union troops. It inspired a wave of similar fairs across the North, including the one depicted here, which happened in 1865 and raised over $200,000.

When young men left the North to go fight in the Civil War, many of the men, women, and children who could not fight served the Union by working for sanitary fairs like this one. Even those who could not afford to purchase items at the fairs could pay a small admission price to go inside and participate. Organizing fairs, making or donating items to be sold at fairs, and attending fairs enabled civilians (and especially women) to work locally to support a national patriotic cause.

1. When you look at this image of Chicago in 1865, how would you describe the mood of the scene?

2. Sanitary fairs in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other big cities had large, popular art galleries where people would view American art. Take a look at Fruit Piece: Apples on Tin Cups, a painting donated to the 1864 Brooklyn Sanitary Fair. Why do you think that so many people wanted to look at American art in a time of war?

Further reading:
Brownlee, Peter John, Sarah Burns, Diane Dillon, Daniel Greene, Scott Manning Stevens, and Adam Goodheart. Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 90. 

Lawson, Linda. Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North. Lawrence, Kansas: The University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Newberry, J. S. The U. S. Sanitary Commission in the Valley of the Mississippi During the War of the Rebellion. Cleveland: Fairbanks, Benedict, and Company, Printers, 1871.

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