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 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
Column 92: The Ballerina Quilter
Column 91: Grandmother's Flower Garden Comes Alive at Texas Quilt Museum
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
See other archived columns here