Our modern state fairs feature various agricultural displays, competitions, races, and entertainment. They are an annual event attended by hundreds of thousands of people. But when did all of this begin?
How about 14,000 years ago — or even before that? In China, the Rites of Chow-li, a fair-like event, dates from the 12th century BC In Mexico, the Aztecs had festivals and fairs a few centuries later. In Greece, the Olympic Games were primarily athletic, but trade was conducted at the same time for grain, linens, carpets, and furniture.
The word “fair” is believed to originate from the Latin word feriae, meaning festival or holiday. From the fifth century of the Christian era, fairs were held in Champagne in France. Early medieval festivals were held in the seventh century in Rome, Antwerp, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Madrid, and the British Isles, according to Collier’s Encyclopedia.
Trade conducted at early fairs resulted in benefits that have survived from antiquity. For example, the modern system of Troy weights is derived from the system employed at the medieval fair in Troyes. Some historians say paper money originated as promissory notes between merchants at these fairs.
Medieval fairs were governed by laws enforced by their own officials and courts. The laws maintained peace and order, enforced quality standards for trade goods, and prevented fraud. The guarantee of freedom of attendance and honest trading at French fairs led to a pledge all merchants had to make “to keep the peace and to deal honestly.”
The first fair in the US took place in New Haven, CT, in 1644 and was devoted to the exhibition of livestock and agricultural products. Other early fairs were held in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maryland, and South Carolina.
Two of the oldest state fairs started in 1841 in New Brunswick, NJ, and Syracuse, NY. Other states soon held their own state fairs.
The fair you attend now was born at the dawn of recorded history.