The Fair’s the Thing

Like everyone else, I’m thinking about healthcare workers these days, so I wanted to focus on Salem women who were physicians or nurses for this week’s #SalemSuffrageSaturday post: I’ve found THREE practicing women physicians in Salem before 1900 and lots of wartime nurses. But I don’t have their stories straight yet: I need more context, more details, more narrative. They are not ready, or more accurately, I am not ready for THEM. So I thought I would focus on philanthropic ladies’ fairs in general, and one fair in particular, as these events were a major expression of the civic engagement of Salem women in the mid-nineteenth century. Starting in the 1830s and extending through and beyond the Civil War, Salem ladies held fairs for a host of benevolent societies and causes: seamen’s aid, widows and orphans of seamen, anti-slavery, the Sanitary Commission and other efforts to support the Union army, temperance, suffrage. These fairs were months in the planning, raised significant funds, and got a lot of press. They were not only a major form of civic engagement for women, but also of civic action and association. It seems impossible to underestimate them, although I’m sure I’m only dealing with the veneer of Salem society that had the time and the resources to dedicate to such endeavors. But still, you’ve got to follow your sources, and many of mine lead me to fairs.

Ladies Fair Boston 1858 (2)Ladies Fair for the Poor in Boston, 1858. Boston Public Library

I believe that the first fair in Salem was in 1831, but the first fair that made a big splash and set the standard for all of the fairs to follow was held two years later at Hamilton Hall as a benefit for the newly-established New England Asylum for the Education of the Blind (later the Perkins School for the Blind), the first institution of its kind in the country. Its founding director, Samuel Gridley Howe, has developed a reputation as the authoritarian husband of abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe of Battle Hynm of the Republic fame, but in the 1830s he was a handsome and dashing doctor (and also a passionate abolitionist) who had served six years in that most romantic of conflicts, the Greek Revolution, and wrote about it. It’s easy to understand how and why he inspired devotion among the ladies of both Salem and Boston: there were competing fairs for his school in 1833, which drew a lot of attention to both. There were quite a few articles on the rival fairs in a variety of newspapers, and we also have the Fair program, as well as the substantive research of Megan Marshall, who identifies Elizabeth Palmer Peabody as one of the prime movers behind the Salem event in her Pulitzer-prize-winning book The Peabody Sisters. Three Women who Ignited American Romanticism. 


Peabody Sisters (3)Samuel Gridley Howe in the 1850s; Megan Marshall’s great book, although I also like the earlier text on the Peabody sisters: Louise Hall Tharp’s Peabody Sisters of Salem, which I read over and over again as a teenager—I think it’s one of the reasons I ended up in Salem! A really good example of collective biography.

Elizabeth was the eldest of the famous three Peabody sisters of Salem (who deserve their own post; I can’t believe I haven’t written about them yet!), all of whom became intertwined in a Boston world of romanticism and reform. Middle sister Mary would marry educator Horace Mann, and youngest sister Sophia would eventually marry Nathaniel Hawthorne, but in the 1830s they were all struggling in somewhat-genteel poverty. Elizabeth had made the acquaintance of Howe (through Mann) in Boston, and believed in him and his cause, but she also saw the fair as a way to promote the artistic talents of Sophia and possibly raise the family’s dwindling fortunes. This explains why Sophia’s name—(along with that of Hawthorne cousin Ann Savage)—are the only names in the entire program for the Ladies Fair.





Screenshot_20200320-064501_DriveCatalogue of Articles to be Offered for Sale at the Ladies’ Fair at Hamilton Hall in Chestnut Street, Salem, on Wednesday, April 10, 1833 for the Benefit of the New England Asylum for the Blind, National Library of Medicine @National Institute of Health.

It is so great to have the entire catalog for this fair, evidence of the creative craftsmanship—and scavenging I suspect—of Salem ladies! Lots of dolls and figures (I would love to see the “large” Queen Elizabeth): so much needlework, so many pincushions, and the two “splendid” paintings by Miss Sophia Peabody, of a place she had never seen—but would much later, after she married Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was a huge success in terms of proceeds, a fact acknowledged even by the Boston papers, and inspired many repeat performances.

Ladies Fair Boston Post April 12 1833


20200321_091844$3000! in proceeds reported in the Boston Post; Hamilton Hall this morning: still the site of much civic engagement, but unfortunately not today, or for a while……..


7 responses to “The Fair’s the Thing

  • Nancy

    Fascinating article, Donna. I have read some of Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters, very good, but was wishing I could procure the book you read as a teenager, aside from buying it somewhere online…

    I found the inventory for the Ladies Fair particularly interesting! Wish I could have attended…but then, where would I be now!

  • Norma

    Please tell me what “do” means in the list of items for sale. At first I thought it was “decorative object” but that doesn’t seem right for many of the items.

  • lisebreen

    Have you found correspondence with the Peabody sisters and Annette Perkins Rogers (1841-1920) re the Perkins School for the Blind or abolitionist causes? I believe she was born in Paris, the daughter of Henry Bromfield Rogers and Anna Powell Mason Perkins. While in Boston, she was active with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the John A. Andrews Society (precursor to the NAACP, they funded the expenses of at least two teachers to teach freedmen), the Children’s Aid Society, and the Overseers of the Poor. She invited fellow female artists for a week of summer study with Charles Woodbury, hosting at her summer house on Cape Ann. She became blind late in life and served on the Mass. Commission for the blind. She was “independently” wealthy and left bequests to Radcliffe ($175,000), Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute ($15,000) and to Simmons and M.I.T. with special funds for social work programs.She also helped to fund the Annisquam Village Hall on Cape Ann. At her memorial service it was said, “To the cause of the blind denied physical sight and to the cause of the Coloured people so long denied inspiration and spiritual sight, Miss Rogers gave time, money, labor, and soul.”

    Her father had similar philanthropic interests.He served as a trustee of Mass. General Hospital, the Boston Atheneum, and M.I.T, was president of the Old Woman’s Home, and left bequests to M.I.T, Harvard, the Unitarian Church and the Perkins School for the Blind. He served as a relief agent for the Sanitary Commission in 1861 in D.C..Henry Bromfield Rogers was an attorney who inherited wealth from the shipping firm of Bromfield and Rogers (which transported, among other commodities, slave-produced Virginia tobacco, rice, and cochineal). He was a stockholder in the Boston and Canton Manufacturing Company. Her mother may be related to Thomas H. Perkins.

  • himalayanbuddhistart

    Thank you for this very interesting post. Apart from the sociological and cultural aspect, the vocabulary is fascinating (if ‘calico’ and ‘gingham’ are well known, I had to look it up ‘cambric’ in the dictionary. Also, and above all, it is always good to read the posts which you especially devote to women whose personal or professional life was remarkable (yet not sufficiently acknowledged or rewarded in most cases).

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