Crafts at the State Fair

When the California Agricultural Society launched what became today’s State Fair in 1854, consumers were already comfortable with purchasing the American canning industry’s tinned foodstuffs; and ready-made clothing was available from merchants.  Nevertheless, expertise at home crafts won high honors at the annual fairs in the 19th century.  In 1858, Mrs. Margaret Crocker, who later donated her family’s fabulous art collection to Sacramento, won best exhibit at the fair (held that year in Marysville), for her dried pears, quinces, and canned fruits. The next year, when the fair Agricultural Fair was held in Sacramento, Margaret won a first premium for both canned and dried fruits, and second place for her raisins, homemade catsup, and pickles. Her stepdaughter Mary, just eleven, won a silver medal for domestic wheat bread.  Mary Frances Hopkins, wife of future railroad mogul Mark Hopkins, won first prize for Embroidery in Cotton at the 1862 fair. Homemade canned and baked goods, plus beautiful, useful, and decorative handcrafts—from hand-made dolls to clothing, furniture, and blown-glass creations—still impress visitors and win medals and ribbons at the State Fair. While it’s true that pioneer women often made cheeses, butter and oils by hand for family consumption, these items—which have been entered in fair competitions since at least the 1860s—were  even then, as today, commercially manufactured products intended for retail sale.

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