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Early Fairs in Pennsylvania

Display of Award Winning Items in Historical Display at 2015 York Fair, York, PA (S. H. Smith, 2015 Photo)
Display of Award Winning Items in Historical Display at 2015 York Fair, York, PA (S. H. Smith, 2015 Photo)

These award winning items were part of a historical display, within Old Main, during the 2015 York Fair, in York, Pa. Wayne C. Neely, in his 1935 book entitled “The Agricultural Fair,” notes it is this competition, for the best agricultural and domestic products, that separates old time city fairs from the agricultural fairs that hit their stride in the mid-1800s. Agricultural fairs are aimed at educating the general public; while advancing livestock, horticulture, and agriculture, plus improving life on the farm—all with a good dose of food and entertainment.

This post will examine several forerunners of agricultural fairs in Pennsylvania; i.e. the old time city fairs. I’ll look at early fairs in Philadelphia, Bristol, Lancaster, York and Reading.

1688—Fair in Philadelphia. The year 1688 represents only six years after Philadelphia was established. An earlier fair is alluded to in the source; page 643 of the Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, Volume III, by Joseph Jackson, and published by The National Historical Association in 1932.

In April, 1688, the Provincial Council was petitioned by “the inhabitants at the Centre of Philadelphia, requesting that the fair be kept there,” to which the Council promised that the next fair should, so be held. … the Council fixed May 20th as the day for holding fairs thereafter, giving as a reason that the practice of holding fairs on the latter days of the sitting of the Assembly was found to impede the public business of the government. For the next ten years the annual fairs were held at The Centre, the Council providing for a second fair to be held in August on the 30th of that month.

1759—Fair in Bristol. Earliest evidence that I’ve located concerning a city fair in Bucks County is for Bristol Borough. An advertisement in the October 4, 1759 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette stated:

For the Benefit of the Public, Notice is hereby given, that the Fair of Bristol Borough, in Bucks County, will be held on the 9th Day of November next, agreeable to Charter; for the buying and selling of all Sorts of live Cattle: The first Attempt of this Kind was made at the last May Fair, and succeeded beyond Expectation.

1760—Fair in Lancaster. The Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa., published an article on “The Semi-Annual Fairs,” by Alfred L. Shoemaker in the October 1953 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman. Quoting from this article:

From the minutes of the Borough of Lancaster it would appear that Lancaster had its first spring fair in 1760. The following year the borough fathers of Lancaster paid Mathias Bough, high constable, on his fair account. A profit was paid to the borough treasury from this fair. … In 1762 we glean these interesting facts from the Lancaster borough minutes. The high constable was reimbursed for a bad dollar received at the fair. James Stevanson was levied three pieces of linen to satisfy a fine of five pounds for covering a booth and vending foreign merchandise.

“Yearly Market or Public Fair, Held in the Borough of York, June 9th, 1801,” Lewis Miller Sketches and Chronicles, pg. 30 (Published in 1966 by The Historical Society of York County, now the YORK COUNTY HERITAGE TRUST)
“Yearly Market or Public Fair, Held in the Borough of York, June 9th, 1801,” Lewis Miller Sketches and Chronicles, pg. 30 (Published in 1966 by The Historical Society of York County, now the YORK COUNTY HERITAGE TRUST)

This sketch, by folk artist Lewis Miller, is his first hand account of the city fairs in York, Pennsylvania; that he witnessed as a youth. Miller was born in 1796. Lewis attended these fairs until he was 20-years old, at which time the fairs in York were discontinued for a number of years. Lewis Miller chronicles below his sketch, “Yearly Market or Public Fair, Held in the Borough of York, June 9th, 1801, the had privilege of a stated yearly market. In 1816, the prohibited the holding of fairs within the Borough of York, and declared such holding a common nuisance.” Click on this LINK for a Full View of the illustrations in this post; since the ydr.com site will occasionally cut off important details in the cropping of illustrations.

1765—Fair in York. The 1765 Charter, for a fair in York, Pa., was granted by Thomas Penn, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Pennsylvania. John Gibson’s 1886 History of York County, Pennsylvania contains a copy of this charter on page 523:

Whereas it has been presented to us that it would be of great service and utility to the inhabitants of the town and county of York, that two fairs be held yearly in the said town, for buying and selling goods, wares, merchandize and cattle; know ye, that we, favoring the reasonable request of the inhabitants, and considering the flourishing state to which the town hath arrived through their industry, have of free will granted, and do, by these presents, for us, our heirs and successors, grant to the present and succeeding inhabitants of the town, that they shall and may, forever hereafter, have and keep in the said town, two fairs in the year, the one of them to begin on the 9th day of June yearly, to be held in High Street, and to continue that day and the day following; and the other of the said fairs to be held in the aforesaid place, on the 2nd day of November, every year, and the next day after it, with all the liberties and customs to such fairs belonging or incident.

The spring 1801 fair, in York, sketched by folk artist Lewis Miller, shows the fair at the Centre Square. High Street is now known as Market Street.

1766—Fair in Reading. The 1766 Charter, for a fair in the Town of Reading, in the County of Berks, was granted by Thomas Penn and Richard Penn. Much of this 1766 Charter to Reading matches wording the 1765 Charter to York. The differences; the fair is to be held on Penn Street in Reading and slightly different fair dates. The spring fair would be held on 4th day of June and the fall fair on the 27th day of October. The source for these details is the article in the October 1953 issue of The Pennsylvania Dutchman; as references above for Lancaster. It seems the Proprietors were slightly staggering the fair dates when fairs were in towns within reasonably close proximity.

Wayne C. Neely noted that scores of these early city fairs gradually fell by the way side. This occurred for various reasons, however often cited was that many city governments mismanaged the fairs; loosing money year after year, essentially exasperated by all the set-up and then removal of temporary structures along city streets. It was farmers and businessmen in the communities that banded together; forming agricultural societies. These societies ran their agricultural fairs like a business; buying property, erecting permanent structures, and managing the operations to attract paying crowds. Agricultural societies were much better at covered their expenses; with any profits turned back into fairground improvements.

Related York Fair posts include:

Reading the Headlines: A Quick Index to All YorksPast Posts