History of Fairs and Festivals

Agricultural fairs and festivals grew out of village market days and livestock exhibitions into the massive events held today.

  • Displays of heirloom vegetables fill the hall at the first National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 2011.
    Photo by John Pendleton
  • The Giant Cabbage Weigh-off at the Alaska State Fair draws local, national and international attention each year.
    Photo by John Pendleton
  • The Ferris wheel is the most familiar icon of today’s fairs, but it was a brand-new invention when it was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
    Photo by John Pendleton
  • Today’s county and state fairs started as livestock shows in the early 1800s. Breeders of heirloom livestock continue raising some of the same sheep, goats and cows that were exhibited then.
    Photo by John Pendleton
  • Vegetable contests have always been an important part of fairs with farmers and gardeners striving to succeed at reaching the “agricultural ideal.”
    Photo by John Pendleton
  • The annual Harrogate Autumn Flower Show in England is known for its national onion championships. Peter Glazebrook is a perennial winner, shown here with the 18.1-pound winner from 2012.
    Photo courtesy Harrogate Flower Shows, United Kingdom

Whenever we stroll onto the dusty grounds of a county fair or walk through the entrance to a harvest festival, we’re following generations of fairgoers who ambled in ahead of us. Every torn ticket and click of a turnstile connects us to the centuries-old tradition of going to a fair.

It’s easy to take for granted today’s fairs and festivals because they’re so deeply ingrained into our history and culture. But each one, no matter its size or stature, has its roots firmly planted in the past. The most distinctive aspect of today’s fairs is how little they’ve changed over the years.

The same features that attract folks to fairs today can be traced to fairs in Europe, dating to the Middle Ages. From the beginning, fairs drew crowds for specific purposes. Some gatherings were religious in nature; other fairs revolved around trade and commerce. Because people enjoyed the social aspect of these annual get togethers, fairs grew into opportunities to shop for specialty goods or to be amused by exotic entertainment.

In Colonial America, regular market days and annual fairs were vital to the prosperity of every village and town. As early as 1686 local governments set aside specific days of the week as market days with three-day fairs celebrated every May and October. Those early markets and fairs encouraged struggling farmers to improve agricultural production as a way to support their families and communities.

Market days and livestock exhibitions, sponsored by area agricultural societies, were common in Britain by the time American farmers borrowed the idea. In the late 1700s, America was striving for independence and self-sufficiency, and agricultural societies promoted new farming methods. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, formed in 1785, included notable members like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Thomas Jefferson was also a passionate plantsman who spent much of his time searching for new production crops at his Monticello estate. On his terraced gardens he experimented with sugar maple trees, grapes, corn and many kinds of legumes. As an avid gardener and friendly competitor, he held annual contests to see which of his neighbors could grow the first English pea each season.

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