The earliest fairs, such as the great Aztec fair that Spanish conquistadors found on the present-day site of Mexico City, were created to solve problems of distribution. Located along major trade or pilgrimage routes, fairs and festivals provided opportunities for people to demonstrate their skills and crafts, exchange ideas, and barter for goods. Today, fairs provide opportunities for travel, entertainment, commerce, and socializing, and also play an important role in the social and economic lives of rural Americans. For urban folk, they provide a means of learning about and appreciating rural and agricultural lifestyles. Livestock and agriculture competitions sponsored by manufacturers and agricultural societies, such as the 4-H Club are fixtures of state and county fairs as are various other contests. Traditional homecrafts such as quilting, lacemaking, rugmaking, baking, and canning, are showcased and awarded ribbons for “best of show.” Interviews from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 in the Manuscript Division, includes many accounts of fair visits:
Our state fair is a great state fair, Don’t miss it, don’t even be late.
“Our State Fair,” Music by Richard Rodgers, words by Oscar Hammerstein II. Performing Arts Division
The State Fair…was the biggest social event of the year. Everybody who was anybody as well as those who were not would come from all the country round about…to exhibit…stock and products.
[Pioneer Reminiscences]. Laura Minto Irwin, interviewee; Sara B Wrenn, interviewer; Portland, Oregon,January 13, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Manuscript Division
Outside exhibition halls, fairgoers sample entertainment ranging from country music to races and pie-eating contests, follow midway barkers’ calls to take in sideshows, try for prizes in game booths, and indulge in cotton candy or a ride on the ferris wheel.
…we regarded a visit to Columbia and the State Fair then just about like you or I would look upon a visit to London or Berlin now.
[Judge J. H. Yarborough]. James Henry Yarborough, interviewee; W. W. Dixon, interviewer; Winnsboro, South Carolina, June 28, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Manuscript Division
- Search on county fair or state fair in Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives to see more pictures of fairs.
- Search on county fair or state fair in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 to read more stories about fairs. Read, for example, about the “Fair Booking Agency” as told by Eddye Kendall of Midlothian, Illinois, to Alfred O. Phillipp.
- Explore one of the crafts featured at county and state fairs by visiting the collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996 which features images of award-winning quilts and interviews with the women who crafted them. Visit the Today in History feature on Quilting for some background on the craft.
- Search on state fair in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress to view items such as invitations to Lincoln to attend various state fairs.
- Search on state fair in Panoramic Photographs to view panoramic images of fairgrounds.
- Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives contains numerous images of state fairs and county fairs. Search on those terms as well as 4-H, fair and contest, and fair and amusement for a variety of images at these events.
- Visit the collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982 for a multimedia presentation of life on a ranch, including videos detailing many traditional practices of this branch of animal husbandry and agriculture.
- Search the collections on the terms parade or rodeo to find more material on festivals celebrated in many parts of the United States.
- Learn about parades and pie-eating contests and celebrate the Library of Congress’ bicentennial in Come Celebrate within the Web site for kids and families, America’s Story from America’s Library.