State FairCredit: photo by Justin Doub under License CCA 2-0 Generic at Wikimedia Commons

Fairs are defined as a competitive exhibition usually accompanied with entertainment and amusements.  The key difference between a fair and a carnival or festival is that a fair has several contests involving farm animals or produce. A state or county fair varies depending on the particular venue, but always includes contests, carnival games, amusements rides and often live entertainment.

Down through time people have gathered to display and compare their produce and animals.   Gatherings were part of everyday social interaction, usually in the form of markets and festivals. During special occasions entertainment and contests were included and were more like fairs that are familiar today.

The date of the first fair is unknown though fairs are mentioned in the Bible.  These were usually marketplace fairs with little semblance to fairs of today.  Fairs were commercial with merchants from other countries coming together to trade their native wares.  These “fairs” included religious activity; “feria” is Latin meaning holy day and is likely the root of the word “fair.”

In the early days the feria was a day when many people gathered to worship. The worship was centered around the temples in the great cities such as Ninevah, Rome, Athens and Mecca. These great cities were also considered the great commercial centers of the world.  Traders sold their wares in the fields adjacent to the temples and religious figures roamed the fields to protect both traders and merchants.   Churches were active in sponsoring fairs on feast days during the early Christian era and the fairs became a source of income for the churches.

As the gatherings evolved and moved into Western Europe, entertainment and other forms of activity wAgriculture Competition at State Fairere added and these primitive market places began to have aspects of today’s fairs.  The fairs attracted such large gatherings of people they were often the scene of riots or other disturbances.

Because of the potential for trouble, fair privileges were granted by a royal charter and at first were only allowed in towns or cities where there were sheriffs or other law enforcement bodies who could keep order. Officials were authorized to give justice to fair participants and even small fairs had courts to preside over disputes and offenses which arose within the fairground.  These were called a pedes pulverizati or pye powder court, the name taken from the French pied pouldre translated as “dusty feet” which meant an itinerant trader.

Some fairs were free while others charged tolls and impositions. Traders were allowed to enter the kingdom and were under royal protection while traveling to and from the fair if the fair was free. The traders and their goods and agents were exempt from all impositions and duties, tolls and servitude and merchants could be arrested or have their goods stopped. Fairs were important to the commerce of the regions.

In 1765, the first American fair was held in Windsor, Nova Scotia and continues today. In 1792, the Niagara Agricultural Society sponsored a fair in Ontario, called Upper Canada at the time.  This fair too continues to this day.

In 1811 Elkanah Watson organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society and created a Cattle Show in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  It included prize money of $70 for the best exhibits of cattle, oxState Fair Competitionen, sheep and pigs.  Watson was called the “Father of U.S. Agricultural Fairs.”  He helped other communities in New England organize their own agricultural societies and by 1819 most counties in New England had them and it spread to other states. By the end of the nineteenth century, almost every state and province had one or more agricultural exhibition or fair.

In 1899, Thomas Patton, Josef Delarose Lascaux, John C. Whaton and William Morrison patented the first electric cotton candy machine which used centrifugal force to spin and melt sugar through small holes. In 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, they introduced cotton candy to the public.  Cotton candy, or spun sugar as it was often called, became a staple at fairs across the country.

In North America today, over 3,200 fairs are held annually. Each summer in the United States over 150 million people attend state, county or local fairs. They offer industrial exhibits, demonstrations and competition to advance agriculture, horticulture, and livestock while emphasizing the educational activities such as 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA) and other youth development programs. State and county fairs offer amusement rides such as the Ferris wheel and carnival games as well as food vendors and often live entertainment by well known artists as well as local talent.


 The copyright of the article “History of the State and County Fair” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.