1864: “The Fair For The Sanitary Commission Is A Good Excuse…”

March 17, 1864

I went today to the Knickerbocker Kitchen Committee for the benefit of the Sanitary Fair. Mrs. Judge Roosevelt is chairman. she wants us to wear the old Dutch costume. Hers is already being made, she said. It is too far from the Fair, being in Union Square, and too few, I thought were interested. Having a sore throat and being afraid of too much work and exposure, I backed out and promised to get Mother to send all that she could. I do not think I have any vocation for public life. I am too knickerbocker to be sufficiently democratic and did not particularly fancy the idea of being seated in cap, short gown, and petticoats, pouring tea for all the rabble that (in such a great city) would come to give their mite to the Sanitary Commission. They would be gratifying their curiosity, and I would be part of the show. My name, too, being so public a one, would be sure of being in the papers.

March 18, 1864

All day I have been receiving company. I had an amusing talk about the degeneracy of modern manners with old Mrs. Webster and Mrs. LeRoy….

There is a clique of fast young married women in New York who are very much loosening the reins of good and decorous manners. In one family, there has been a great scandal – that of Mr. Austin Stevens, one of the most respectable men of the city. His daughter, Mrs. Peter Strong, has behaved most shamelessly with her brother-in-law, and her outraged husband is seeking a divorce. Society seems to have gone mad, giving itself up to every kind of extravagance and dissipation.

The Fair for the Sanitary Commission is a good excuse to many, not but that it will do much good and that many of those who are very busy in it would do nothing otherwise. I have taken no active part in it, though I have expended a good deal of money upon it (although it is not yet open) in tickets for concerts, raffles, etc. Mrs. Stout came to me from Mr. Luckerman and Mr. Rutherford to ask me to personate Katrina Van Tassel. I would wear the costume of Huntington’s picture and sell Washington Irving books at the Fair. There was to a facade of the house in New Jersey were “Salmagundi” was written, and in that I was to sit to complete the picture. Mrs. Stout said that I looked like an old Flemish picture, and that no one else would do. As Katrina Van Tassel is represented as blooming girl of 18, and I am more than double that age, I think it the part of modesty and patriotism to decline. My refusal will spare me just and critical remarks and a great deal of trouble.

March 30, 1864

….Rosalie is very anxious to officiate in the Knickerbocker Kitchen at the Sanitary Fair. All the city will be crazy for the next week, but it tends to keep up a spirit of patriotism. It is to open on Monday next.

Maria Lydig Daly, journal entry excerpts, March 1864.

(Source: Diary of a Union Lady, 1861-1865; Maria Lydig Daly, edited by Harold Earl Hammond, 1962, pages 279-285)

The Metropolitan Fair in NYC

The Sanitary Commission Fair in New York

The U.S. Sanitary Commission collected supplies for the Union army and sent inspectors, chaplains, doctors, nurses, and other personnel to the armies and hospitals. They also raised massive amounts of funds to support the Union cause. 1864 marked a year of incredible fundraising and determination in the commission and New York hosted one of the largest fairs to support the war effort.

The Sanitary Commission Fair in New York –  called the Metropolitan Fair – opened in April 1864 and lasted a couple weeks. The exhibition sold and raffled a variety of items and offered unique experiences. Maria Daly – wife of a prominent judge – disparaged the fair, claiming it was efforts for publicity by upper class women. She notes the old-fashioned costumes and themes incorporated into this fair, including the invitation to portray the young woman in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleep Hollow. The term “knickerbocker” is both a reference to Irving since it was one of his pen names and a word used to describe local New Yorkers and their history in the 19th Century.

Despite Mrs. Daly’s reluctance and disapproval, the New York Sanitary Commission Fair was a great success. The civilian coordinators and curious or patriotic attendees raised one million dollars for the Union cause!

An image of women at the “post office” at the Sanitary Commission Fair in NYC.

Finding Her Place

Mrs. Daly writes critically of society in the entries in this portion of her journal. She saw the troubled side that the Civil War brought for society and narrowed in on the struggle for women to find the balance of patriotism, tradition, and innovative roles.

The Sanitary Commission actively recruited women to help with homefront war efforts. Many women helped with sewing, knitting, preparing medical supplies, and packing foods to send to hospitals and camps. In the chapters of the commission, women took roles, organizing the projects. In the large cities, ladies often helped create the fundraiser fairs. The Executive Board for the New York Metropolitan Fair had twenty-five men and twenty-five women doing the planning and coordinating. Many of the women were from upper class family and taking this active role outside the home was a new step.

In the name of patriotism, women found ways to create public roles to support the war effort. This was a startling step and would have long lasted effects on American society and women’s homefront roles in war and peace.

Historical Musings

Keep up a spirit of patriotism.

Maria Daly had a pessimistic view of the Metropolitan Fair, but others were enthusiastic. New York had an interesting Civil War experience – including riots about the draft in 1863 and a large population of Democrat voters.

But one thing was clear: the people did value their patriotism and the novelty of hosting a fair. The hosts, hostesses, and guests at the fair all did their part to support the Union during the spring and raised an incredible amount of money to make a difference in the care of the common soldier.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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