Fair, in commerce, periodic or occasional meeting of buyers and sellers, with their merchandise, for purposes of trade. Originally, fairs were held in conjunction with religious festivals. Because of the difficulties of travel in the Middle Ages, it was impossible for would-be purchasers to acquire desired commodities at will and for merchants to renew their stocks continually. Fairs, therefore, gradually developed, taking place when quantities of goods had been accumulated and where great numbers of potential purchasers were present. They were established as annual events throughout Europe, and became institutions also in the Middle East, notably in the religious center of Mecca. Fairs were so important to commercial life that secular and religious authorities granted merchants special privileges, such as a court of their own to settle disputes that arose while fairs were in progress.
In the Middle Ages, particularly during the 13th and 14th centuries, many fairs were held in Europe. The fairs of Champagne (France) were the most famous. Later, the fair at Geneva became important. Other important fairs were held in Pavia and Milan, in Italy; Frankfurt and Leipzig, in Germany; and Stourbridge and London, in England. Some fairs were established for the sale of a particular kind of merchandise, such as cattle, horses, or cloth; others dealt in general merchandise. Many fairs, in addition to their trading activities, maintained labor exchanges, where domestic or agricultural servants hired themselves out for a year. Occasionally a “pleasure fair,” a place for amusement, was held in conjunction with the commercial fair; a few fairs, notably the Bartholomew Fair of London, lost their commercial aspect in time and became almost entirely pleasure fairs. Such also was the Donnybrook Fair in Ireland, established in 1204, which eventually became a byword for brawling and was suppressed in 1855, during the reign of Queen Victoria of Britain.
By the 18th century, when the number of shops and markets had increased and transportation and communication methods were improved, commercial fairs had lost their importance. Fairs were, however, maintained, because trade could be concentrated in a single place, and market conditions could thus be gauged and prices fixed. In the 18th century the greatest fairs were those at Leipzig (established 1507), in Germany, and Stourbridge (established 1211), in England. In the 19th century, the fair of Leipzig became the great international trade fair. Goods were, however, no longer sold directly, and the Leipzig fair was more an exhibition of samples than a fair in the traditional sense of the word.
Because of Russia’s belated economic development, fairs were important there long after they had lost their prominence in other countries of Europe. The great fair of Nizhniy Novgorod, established in 1817, was the center of domestic Russian trade as well as trade with Asia. Although the building of railroads gradually improved communication and trade in Russia, the Nizhniy Novgorod fair remained the center of Russian trading activity until World War I.
The trade fairs of the 20th century, particularly in the United States, were more in the nature of exhibitions than true fairs; various industries, such as the automobile, broadcasting, office-equipment, and textile industries, continue to hold annual fairs to display their latest products and promote sales. A great part of such activity, moreover, was taken over by the regional, national, or international exhibitions and expositions. Some European fairs became exhibitions for specialized merchandise and admitted only those exhibitors who were connected with a particular industry.
In the U.S., the most common type of fair was the country or state agricultural fair. These events were originated by Elkanah Watson, a merchant of Albany, New York. Watson organized the first rural fair, the Berkshire County Fair at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1811. He later influenced the New York legislature to appropriate, in 1819, the sum of $10,000 a year for six years to provide premiums for agricultural products and for products made in the home, such as preserves. During the 19th century, annual state fairs became popular throughout the rural districts of the U.S., and many states appropriated funds to aid them. Most popular were the annual county fairs, where livestock and all kinds of vegetable produce and manufactured goods were exhibited, and awards were given for the best exhibits in each category. Such rural fairs lasted for one or two weeks; a few of them, notably the Iowa State Fair and the fair of Danbury, Connecticut, became nationally famous.