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United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: Giving


A colorful USSC emblemA colorful USSC emblemIt may seem surprising to learn that even though the United States Sanitary Commission was officially endorsed by the U.S. government in June 1861, by mutual agreement this civilian organization did not receive federal funding for its work. The USSC's extensive activities—camp and hospital inspections, medical studies and publications, and especially, a wide variety of relief efforts for soldiers—were bankrolled entirely by the private sector.

Project archivists Melissa Haley, working on the records of the California Branch and histories of the U.S. Sanitary Commission's "special relief" services, and Elizabeth Delmage, working on the Commission's financial records, have encountered a common thread in their work. Here they share some stories highlighting the support the American people gave to the Sanitary Commission:

A "children'sfair" committee, Brooklyn, 1863A "children's
fair" committee, Brooklyn, 1863
Calls to the general public, usually through newspapers and circulars, always engendered an outpouring of giving throughout the Union. Children solicited donations for the USSC in their schools, parents' stores, and with "children's fairs." A man in Maine raised $3.35 for the Commission by selling pond lilies on a train. Horsewomen in Connecticut donated their winnings of $15 in a Country Fair for "best exhibitions of Female Equestrianism." A "lady who has been an invalid for 3 years, and unable to sew for the Soldiers" contributed $20 to the Sanitary Commission. And a former Union soldier who had "enjoyed their (the Commission's) hospitality but thro' the misfortune of war is now 'laid on the shelf' as far as 'soldiering' is concerned" sent them one dollar.

Wealthy donors, too, came through with contributions in the thousands of dollars. One of the Library's early benefactors, James Lenox, gave generously to the Sanitary Commission. Companies often donated goods in lieu of money: brown stout from a Philadelphia brewer; the India Rubber Co. sent combs. Egg nog and beef hash were contributed to the Commission's stash by the American Desiccating Co. of New York. The U.S. government and private railroad companies helped with transportation, but even so, the costs of shipping, the need to buy goods that could not be made at home, and salaries for staff all required having a good amount of cash on hand, particularly when major battles were looming.

Advertisement, 1864, California BranchscrapbookAdvertisement, 1864, California Branch
The Sanitary Commission's calls for contributions also inspired some creative giving, with a real variety of fundraising techniques, especially way out in California. There, a giant "Sanitary Cheese" (3930 lbs.) was created and exhibited for a fee, touring the state (a piece of it eventually made its way to the White House). A single sack of flour traveled around the West and was sold and resold at auction until it garnered $40,000 for the USSC.


California's Aid Societies raised money through monthly subscriptions in remote mining towns with names like Red Dog, Rough & Ready, and Jenny Lind. Polling stations and public gatherings were tapped for appeals. Mass meetings, exhibitions, tours, and fundraising social events also produced numerous donations, making California the single largest financial contributor to the Commission overall.

Town of Dutch Flat, from the south-east, Placer County., Digital ID G92F103_025F, New York Public LibraryThis mining town gave to the USSC: Dutch Flat, Placer County, CA"Sanitary Fairs" proved to be an excellent way to spread the word about the U.S. Sanitary Commission and get local communities involved in the war effort from their homes. In the fall of 1863, the women of Chicago staged a large regional fair as a fundraising event to support the work of the USSC as well as their own local aid societies. The first Northwestern Sanitary Fair was held in Chicago from October 27 – November 7, 1863, raising nearly $80,000. The success of this large urban fair was followed by others in Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Albany. By the end of the war, these Sanitary Fairs contributed nearly $3,000,000 to the Central Treasury of the United States Sanitary Commission in New York. This figure does not take into account the amount of the proceeds kept by the USSC "branches" that held the fairs to carry out their responsibilities.

Buildings of the Great Central Fair, in aid of the U.S. Sanitary Commission Logan Square, Philadelphia, June 1864., Digital ID 55030, New York Public LibraryGreat Central Fair in aid of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Philadelphia, 1864By 1866, the Sanitary Commission had successfully collected $4,924,048.99 in generous donations from people throughout the United States, as well as support from individuals living abroad. Nearly half of that figure ($2,736,868.84) came from the Sanitary Fairs held during the last half of the war, and another $1,233,977.81 was raised just in California. And these are just dollar figures – far surpassed by hours of effort and the value of donations in kind. All of these contributions, whether from little children in Brooklyn or James Lenox, made it possible for the U.S. Sanitary Commission to carry out its mission – supporting the needs of U.S. soldiers and sailors and their families. Once available, the records of these activities will inform our understanding of this important wartime chapter in the history of American philanthropy.

Alphabetical list of USSC contributors, 1861-1865 ("L")Alphabetical list of USSC contributors, 1861-1865 ("L")
The Sanitary Commission kept meticulous accounts of monies received and spent. To find out what the above figures would be equivalent to in today's dollars, see:
 Alphabetical list of USSC contributors, 1861-1865 ("Anonymous")"Proceeds of firework fund of little Boy & Girl": Alphabetical list of USSC contributors, 1861-1865 ("Anonymous")
For more information on the USSC's fundraising endeavors and financial practices, including USSC President Henry W. Bellows' account of the California contributions that rescued the USSC, see Charles J. Stille's History of the United States Sanitary Commission, as well as its Bulletin and Sanitary Reporter. A keyword search of "United States Sanitary Commission" in the Library's catalog retrieves a wealth of materials by and about the USSC, including their Sanitary Fairs.

Previous USSC posts:


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This is a really great post. In light of your talking about the Commission's interesting approaches to fund-raising I was reminded that not long ago I attended a class in Archive Management that included some time spent processing collections at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. In one of the boxes of unprocessed materials was a Sanitary Fair commerative ice skate. I don't think it had seen action!


Thanks very much! So far, no ice skates here.

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