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Mary Livermore & the Great Northwestern Fair

Split image. Portrait of Mary Livermore and lithograph of the main building of the Great North Western Sanitary Fair
On December 19, 1820, Mary Livermore was born in Boston, where she spent her early years working in a secondary school. She, her husband Daniel, and their family planned to move to Kansas in 1857 with other abolitionists, intending to secure it as a free state, but their daughter became sick and the family decided to settle in Chicago.

Livermore quickly established herself as a philanthropist in the young city, until the Civil War broke out and her work shifted. In June 1861, it became clear that the Union Army was suffering more from illness and malnutrition than from Confederate weaponry, and Lincoln established the United States Sanitary Commission to centralize civilian relief efforts. A Chicago branch opened soon after, managed by Livermore and Jane Hoge. To raise money, the women proposed a Great Northwestern Fair, where they could auction off or sell food, entertainment, and mementos of the war.

The 1863 Great Northwestern Fair was a resounding success. Livermore had hoped to earn at least $25,000, and in the end, the Sanitary Commission made more than $86,000 from the estimated eighty-five to ninety thousand visitors. The fair fundraising model became popular, and similar events were held in other Union cities, garnering public sentiment in support of the war effort.

After the war, Livermore focused her energy on fighting for women’s suffrage. In 1869, she organized Chicago’s first suffrage convention and established The Agitator, a suffrage newspaper. She is one of the many activist women featured in our digital experience Democracy Limited: Chicago Women and the Vote.

Learn more about Mary Livermore’s work in our Chicago History magazine article “The Art and Politics of Chicago’s Sanitary Fairs.”

Images: Portrait of Mary A. Livermore. CHM, ICHi-051132; Lithograph of the main building of the Great North Western Sanitary Fair, Chicago, 1865. CHM, ICHi-063123.

Chicago History Magazine

For fifty years, the Chicago History Museum’s Chicago History magazine has been featuring scholarly articles that have told Chicago stories, shedding light on well-known events and giving voice to lesser known people and happenings that have also shaped the city’s history. The magazine’s pages have covered everything from reshaping Chicago’s waterways to the history of the city’s murals, from the mayor’s office during Prohibition to Black abolitionists during the mid-nineteenth century, from the songs of the labor movement to the streamline of modern design.

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