Brooklyn Sanitary Fair of 1864

Brooklyn Sanitary Fair

Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, 1864. Lithograph Sheet: 14 1/16 x 16 1/4 in. (35.7 x 41.2 cm) Brooklyn Museum. Bequest of Samuel E. Haslett


Although the U.S. Sanitary Commission (an official government agency signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln) was headed by men, much of its work to support the Federal army during the American Civil War with funds and supplies was accomplished by thousands of women volunteers. They helped to organize sanitary fairs, marking the first time during the American Civil War that women expressed their patriotism in the public sphere rather than the domestic arena.



Brooklyn Sanitary Fair
Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, 1864. Brooklyn Museum. Bequest of Samuel E. Haslett

In Brooklyn, women’s organizations produced the successful "Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair", featuring dances, parades, merchandise sales, auctions, and a cattle show. The event lasted two weeks and raised a remarkable $400,000, four times more than anticipated.

Brooklyn Sanitary Fair
Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910. Home from the War, 1863.
Illustration: 9 1/8 x 13 7/8 in. Page: 10 7/8 x 15 3/4 in. Brooklyn Museum. Gift of Harvey Isbitts.

Today, an exhibition of nearly thirty artworks and historical objects celebrating the contributions of Union women to an American Civil War relief effort known as the Sanitary Movement is the subject of an exhibition in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Healing the Wounds of War: The Brooklyn Sanitary Fair of 1864, on view through October 17, focuses on one of the many sanitary fairs held in Northern cities to raise money to aid the Union troops, each seeking to outdo the others.



The Herstory Gallery is dedicated to exhibitions that relate to the lives and histories of the 1,038 women named in The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, which is on permanent view in the adjacent gallery. Represented in Chicago’s iconic work is Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States and a leader of the Sanitary Movement.

Antique doll clothes

Doll and Wardrobe, Sanitary Fair. United States, circa 1864. Mixed media, doll approx. 12 in. (30.5 cm) high. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Ira B. Downs, 24.311mn


The focal point of the exhibition is an exceptional doll and its trousseau, made by the dressmaker Eliza Lefferts for the 1864 Brooklyn fair, which was held in a Montague Street location. The doll and her exquisitely created wardrobe, last on public view in 1985, entered the Brooklyn Museum collection in 1924.


Brooklyn Sanitary FairAlso included in the exhibition are lithographs that depict the halls of the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, where handmade items were for sale, as well as engravings of several magazine illustrations by Winslow Homer showing scenes of the war and the relief effort at home. The material in the exhibition is from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collections, augmented by loans of ephemera from the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Right Image: Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, 1864. Brooklyn Museum. Bequest of Samuel E. Haslett.