HEALING THE WOUNDS OF WAR The Brooklyn Sanitary Fair of 1864
During the Civil War (1861–65) the women of the Northern states contributed significantly to the support of the Union effort. One of their particularly successful initiatives was the organization of the United States Sanitary Commission, empowered by President Abraham Lincoln to promote modern sanitary conditions and to improve hygiene standards for soldiers and veterans of the war.
The organization began in 1861, when the Women’s Central Association of Relief, a group numbering more than four thousand, met at the Great Hall of Cooper Union. Their goal was to expand into a larger organization on the model of the British Sanitary Commission, established by the famed nurse Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War (1853–56). Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from a medical college in the United States, was a co-founder of the American association, which became the United States Sanitary Commission.
To raise money for what was generally called the Sanitary Movement, fairs were held in cities throughout the Northeast during the Civil War. These large social events combined entertainment and education with philanthropy. The Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, orchestrated by local civic and service organizations, opened on February 22, 1864, and ran for about a month. The fair took place in and around the Brooklyn Academy of Music, then located on Montague Street in downtown Brooklyn, an independent city at the time. The fair raised more than $400,000—almost 4 million dollars by today’s standards—far surpassing the $100,000 goal of its organizers. Highlighting two dolls from the Museum’s collection that were displayed at the fair as well as ephemera and period documents, this exhibition celebrates the historic benefit and sheds light on the larger contributions of women during the Civil War—those of Blackwell and others honored in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, as well as those of countless unknown volunteers.
Catherine J. Morris
Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art