© 2019 by Solano County Fair Association

the origin of fairs

An excerpt from "Creating the Magic of a Great Fair: Operating Principles & Tools" ~ Published in 1999 by California Division of Fairs & Expositions

From the Dawn of Civilization

The complex genealogy of fairs is linked to no less than the beginnings of human civilization. Fairs have ancient ties to traveling caravans of merchants and entertainers, the season of the harvest, and religious worship and feasting. In the early stages of civilization, when the population was scattered with only primitive means of transportation and communication, the way stations of traveling caravans served as important venues for commerce and entertainment. Caravans traveled over prescribed routes that would enable them to arrive during periods of harvest and other special gatherings. Wherever they stopped, otherwise warring neighbors would suspend their hostilities for the duration of the caravan's visit in order to conduct trade.

The etymology of the word "fair" derives from the Latin feriae, meaning days of holiday, rest and feasting. The etymology of the word "holiday" is a contracted form of "holy" and "day." In ancient Greece, India and Asia, events that drew large numbers of people for religious ceremonies were also occasions that attracted vendors of food, toys, ornaments and religious emblems, as well as acrobats, actors, clowns and musicians. In Mecca, there still exists a fair that is intimately related to the well-known religious pilgrimage. It even still includes a caravan of traders.

Impact of the Industrial Revolution

During the 18th century, the impact of the industrial revolution was as great in agriculture as in manufacturing. Significant changes came about in both the machinery and methods for food production. Instead of simply providing supplies of food and clothing for self-contained feudal villages, agriculture developed into a commercial occupation that could produce enough food to supply entire nations. This transition necessitated not only increasing the yield but also improving the quality of agricultural products to meet the demands of a changing social and economic order.

The evolution of fairs that combined religious, commercial and entertainment activities into a single festival emphasizing agricultural education and exhibits began in 18th century England. Landowners, recognizing the potential for higher profits, established agricultural societies and began holding cattle shows and farm demonstrations to popularize new breeds of livestock and explain new methods of cultivation during the annual harvest celebration.

Rise of the American Agricultural Fair

In the United States, Elkanah Watson is widely regarded as the progenitor of the American agricultural fair. Watson founded the Berkshire Agricultural Society in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1810 and, at its second annual meeting, the Society offered prizes in a competitive display of livestock.

The following year, prizes and certificates for excellence were awarded for livestock, field and orchard crops, and articles of domestic manufacture. Other major attractions were a plowing contest, demonstrations of spinning, and a parade with a marching band. The Berkshire fair intended to enhance agricultural production methods by recognizing the best farm products and handiwork in a region. Commerce, competition and celebration became the basic ingredients of this popular event and every American fair to follow.

Government Involvement

The popularity of the Berkshire fair grew, especially with annual increases in premiums and with the addition in 1814 of a Grand Agricultural Ball. By 1816, the premiums exceeded what Watson could raise privately and in 1817 he applied for and received from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts a $200 state subsidy. Two years later, the legislatures of New York and New Hampshire also enacted general subsidy laws to fund premiums awarded at fairs in those states.

Thereafter, adoption of the Berkshire model for fairs spread quickly throughout the nation. In 1850, there were 912 county and state agricultural societies that sponsored annual fairs. By 1913, the U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 2,740 such societies.

In California, the history of government involvement in fairs and expositions dates back to 1854 when the legislature created the California State Agricultural Society to hold an exhibition of livestock, manufactures and production. A major recognition took place in 1929 when the Department of Finance took over the powers and duties of the Board of Agriculture, which the legislature had created in 1863 to administer the business activity of the Society, and established in its place a Division of Exhibits. This reorganized Division of Exhibits coordinated and administered the "state rules" for exhibiting at fairs. A 1941 law changed the name of the agency to the Division of Fairs & Exhibitions. By 1963, the legislature transferred the division to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Today this division is known as Fairs & Expositions.

Development of the California Network of Fairs

The first six fairs in California were established during the 19th century before the Civil War. Their mission was to advance public knowledge of agriculture and to provide facilities for community gatherings timed to coincide with the seasonal rhythms of agriculture. Fairs were generally once-a-year events, operated mostly by volunteers.

Toward the end of the 19th century, California followed the lead of other states by sanctioning the creation of agricultural societies for the purpose of conducting annual fairs or expositions. California laws passed in that era authorized formation of district agricultural associations (DAAs) wherever 50 or more citizens in a specific locale organized for this purpose and had the support of their local legislator.

Six DAAs had formed prior to 1933. Within ten years of passage of the 1933 California Horse Racing Act, another 48 had been established. Until the 1940s, fairs were still mostly volunteer operated.

Today the network of California fair organizations includes 80 local fair organizations and the state fair. Of the 80 local organizations, there are still 54 DAAs, which are state institutions. In addition, there are 24 county fairs and two citrus fruit fairs (a special designation in state law). In aggregate, the network annually supports as many as 30,000 full-time positions and generates an estimated $1.6 billion in economic impact.

California Fairgrounds

Throughout the 1940s, the federal Work Projects Administration and the California Conservation Corps were primarily responsible for the initial development of fairgrounds. These agencies constructed more than 3,000 structures to house annual fair events, which at that time emphasized agricultural activities almost exclusively (especially 4-H and FFA shows).

The inventory of fairgrounds in California (county-owned, privately held and state-owned) includes more than 3,000 buildings on nearly 5,500 acres at locations throughout the state. Current market estimates of California's fairground property indicate the aggregate value of real estate and improvements may be as high as $1 billion.

For nearly thirty years, year-round use of fairgrounds has been increasing dramatically. In addition to satellite wagering facilities, fairgrounds provide space for private events, public or community events, exhibitions and trade shows, and emergency services staging grounds and evacuation centers. Particularly in rural communities, a fairground is the central activity site and the fair event serves as the annual gathering. This unique community-based identity sets fairs apart from the myriad other events and attractions available to consumers and enables fair organizations to touch the lives of people residing in their immediate market areas 12 months a year.