December 1863: "I went to the fair in the morning, and oh! it was all fully crowded."

By Elaine Heavey

Sarah Gooll Putnam diary 6, entries for 15 December - 18 December 1863,  pages 65-71

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The diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam offers a unique opportunity to experience the New England Sanitary Commission Fair, held at the Boston Music Hall from 14-20 December 1863, through the eyes of a child. The 12-year-old diarist visits the fair on four consecutive days, starting on 15 December, and spends seven of her own dollars on Christmas gifts and refreshments, taking great pride in the fact that she spent her money in support of the soldiers.

The New England Sanitary Commission Fair was a large success, raising over $140,000 to support the Sanitary Commission’s work providing medical and humanitarian care for Union soldiers during the Civil War. The money was raised through admission fees, the sale of gifts and other items from the various tables, and a number of raffles of highly valued donations, including 500 acres of land in Chicago, several Chickering pianos, and an artists’ book, described in the Boston Daily Advertiser as “one of the finest portfolios of art in the country.” To draw crowds to the fair, in addition to the items for sale and raffle, the organizers arranged exhibitions of the artwork from the Boston Athenaeum, a collection of historical curiosities (including several items loaned from the MHS’s own collection), and an authentic Sanitary Commission tent filled with battlefield memorabilia and trophies celebrating Union victories.

Sarah Gooll Putnam, known to family and friends as Sally, was born into a well-to-do family in 1851. Her parents, John Pickering and Harriet Upham Putnam, were both members of families with long and notable histories in Massachusetts. Her immediate family, which included her three siblings, Mary (b. 1843), Harriet (b. 1845), and John (b. 1847), lived in homes in Andover and Boston during her childhood. As the family was preparing for a move to Boston in December 1863, Sally and her sisters stayed with their aunt Louisa Putnam Peabody while they were in the city for the fair.

The featured diary is unique not only because it offers a child’s view of the fair, but because the artistically talented Putnam illustrated her diary, offering visual aids to support her description of events. Not surprisingly she comments at length about the great “Artists Book,” which she viewed on her final visit to the fair. The book, which raised over $4,000 through the sale of raffle tickets, contains at least one image that does not impress the young artist. Upon looking at it she comments, “I could have painted as good a one.” Yet on 22 December she proudly records that the winner of the book was her own cousin, Patrick Jackson.

Throughout the diary entry, Sally captures the enthusiasm Bostonians felt for the fair, commenting on how “fully crowded” the halls were and describing the electric feeling in the crowd when it is announced that the Chesapeake had been retaken. She also shares a common complaint with many Bostonians when, upon her first visit to the hall, she states “the great organ was covered, it is real mean.” The newspapers had warned potential visitors that the organ, recently installed in the Boston Music Hall, would be covered for all but the opening night of the fair, when an organ concert would be part of the opening festivities. After that performance, for the protection of the organ, it was to be covered with a large curtain bearing the flags of many of the Massachusetts regiments. On the evening of Sally’s final visit to the fair, she describes another attempt to see the magnificent organ, but once again, she is disappointed.

Sally becomes ill with a cold, and is unable to attend the fair on the closing weekend. She concludes her 19 December entry with an account of various items she purchased that she intends to offer as Christmas gifts to her friends and family, seeming quite satisfied with her own experience at the fair.

Sources for Further Reading

The featured entry is excerpted from one of 27 volumes of Sarah Gooll Putnam’s diaries  held by the MHS. The diaries span over 51 years of her life, beginning in 1860, when the author was nine years old, and continuing until close to her death in 1912. Putnam illustrates her diary throughout, allowing readers to follow not only the narrative of her life, but also to observe her development as an artist. Five volumes of the diary (June 1861- August 1864) can be viewed in full on the MHS website; please select from the links within the collection guide for the Sarah Gooll Putnam diaries.  

Pipkin, Erin L. “‘Striking in its Promise': The Artistic Career of Sarah Gooll Putnam.” Massachusetts Historical Review, 3 (2001): 89-115.

Boston Daily Advertiser. (Boston: C. Hale & Co.), issues of 12-24 December 1863.

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