The New York State Fair was first held in Syracuse, New York, in 1841. It was the first such fair ever held in the United States and is today one of the largest, attracting over one million visitors. The fair was started by The New-York State Agricultural Society, with financial backing from the New York State […]
The New York State Fair was first held in Syracuse, New York, in 1841. It was the first such fair ever held in the United States and is today one of the largest, attracting over one million visitors. The fair was started by The New-York State Agricultural Society, with financial backing from the New York State Legislature. The second fair was held in Albany, New York, and from that time until 1890, when the fair was permanently located in Syracuse, the perceived “agricenter” of the state, it was rotated among the cities of Albany, Auburn, Buffalo, Elmira, New York, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Utica, and Watertown.
Every kind of conceivable exhibition, both animate and inanimate, was included in the fair and competition for awards was stiff. An award of one of the coveted gold, silver, or bronze medals not only spoke to the excellence of the animal or object being exhibited but could easily translate into money as people sought to purchase award winners.
In 1873 the Shaker sisters of the Church Family at Mount Lebanon created an exhibition of their “sale work,” what today would be called their “fancy goods.” These were the objects they offered for sale at the office store – the majority of which at this time would have been useful and decorative little boxes made of poplar cloth. The silver medal in the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon collection was awarded for their fancy straw work – which was probably how the judges classified what may have been, to them, mystifying woven poplar wood.
On September 23, 1873, Brothers Henry Cantrell and Joseph Holden left Mount Lebanon for Albany to attend the State Fair. That same day Sisters Sarah Ann Lewis and Tabitha Lapsley “went to Albany to exhibit … sale articles at the State Fair.” [Sister Polly Jane Reed, Pocket Diary, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1873, [OClWHi, mss. no., V:B-166]] The 33d annual New York State Fair opened on September 24. Several other members of the Church Family apparently went to see the fair as well. On the 28th of September, Sisters Tabitha Lapsley, Polly Lewis, and Caty (or Katie) Boyle returned home leaving Sarah Ann Lewis to return the next day. “She staid to take care of her things – it was not necessary for Tabitha to stay longer so she slipped sway & come home thankful to get out of the bustle.” [ibid]
It is most interesting that although the “comings and goings” to the fair are frequently mentioned, no mention has been found in the journals of the sisters being awarded a medal. That absence may signal an interesting tension between the commercial marketing potential of receiving an award for their products and the Shakers’ constant struggle to remain humble. It would be interesting to know what the Shakers did with the medal when they returned, who kept it and where.