The Fair/Quilt Connection
Viewing quilts at the fair, Dallas, ca. 1938. State Fair Photo Archives.
Since the mid-19th century, county and state fairs have been an important part of life in the United States. Based on Medieval European harvest fairs, U.S. county and state fairs were initially intended for the promotion of agriculture and farm products.
They soon branched out to include competitions and exhibitions of “domestic arts,” and were popular social events wherever they were held. The first state fair in the United States was held in Syracuse, New York in 1841.
Almost from the beginning, there was a connection between county/state fairs and quilts, as quilt contests soon became part of the fair offerings. Fairs provided competition, recognition, and an opportunity to exhibit—all of which were important incentives for the artistic quilter.
Before fairs, just about the only audience a quilter had was her family. An uncommon visitor might prompt the display of a fine quilt on the best bed, but it was not until the fair instituted a special showcase for the presentation of superior talent that quilters had the gratification of reaching a wider public. Quilt contests and the awarding of prizes stimulated a desire for peak accomplishment and broadened the range of expression of each contestant.
Prizes or premiums usually consisted of ribbons, medals, or certificates, with “bragging rights”—whether exercised or not—no doubt being part of the winning effort.
In the 20th century, sometimes the opportunity to have one’s quilt pattern published might be part of the prize. Cash awards offered an additional enticement to exhibitors, although certainly these were not always part of the fair experience.
The popularity of quilt contests at fairs perhaps reached its highpoint in 1933, when the World’s Fair—dubbed “The Century of Progress Exposition”—came to the United States. This fair’s quilt contest was sponsored by Sears, Roebuck and Company, which offered $1200 to the original quilt that won the grand prize. (When compared to the cash awards given today at quilt festivals by corporate sponsors, a $1200 prize might not seem very substantial, but during the Great Depression, that amount was twice the average annual family income.)
Additionally, the winning quilt was given the honor of being presented to Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There were 25,000 entries in the contest. Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman have written a fascinating account of the contest in their book, Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World’s Fair.
Today, although fairs may have been replaced by quilt festivals and guild-sponsored quilt shows as the premier outlets for displaying fine quilts, county and state fairs nevertheless remain popular among quilters for exhibiting their work and competing for a chance to win awards. Let’s hope it always remains so.
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Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery
See other archived columns here