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fair

fair, market exhibition at which producers, traders, and consumers meet either to barter or to buy and sell goods and services. Before the development of transportation and marketing, fairs furnished the primary opportunity for the exchange of merchandise, and served as centers of community social life. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans the days of the public market were also used to announce new public laws. In early Christian times special occasions for marketing were frequently attached to religious gatherings, notably those of pilgrims coming to a town to celebrate a special feast. In the Middle Ages fairs were the major means of exchanging commodities not produced for subsistence. Fairs were incorporated by royal charter and had their own officials, laws, and courts. Major trade routes affected the growth of individual fairs; among the most prominent were those of Geneva, Antwerp, Leipzig, Madrid, Burgundy, Lyons, Bordeaux, Novgorod, and Sturbridge and Bartholomew Fair in England. Of the variety of goods traded at such fairs, cloth was probably the most important. The volume of trade was so great that by the 15th cent. some fair towns became banking centers and were subjected to special regulations. With the breaking of the manorial system, commerce became an expanding and regular part of economic life. Trade fairs declined and to a large extent were replaced by outdoor and indoor general markets. In the 17th cent. pleasure fairs, dominated by entertainments such as plays, became popular. The exposition, combining entertainment and commerce, flourishes today. A variety of advanced industrial wares (such as computers) are exhibited, and important technological innovations are displayed. International trade fairs, devoted solely to commercial display and directed toward businessmen, have also become popular since World War II. Agricultural fairs—held to improve farming methods, stocks, and crops—have been particularly important in the history of the United States. Many states and counties still maintain annual fairs, though some have been discontinued. In recent years, specialized fairs, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, have taken on international significance.

See H. Augur, The Book of Fairs (1939); W. Addison, English Fairs and Markets (1953); C. Walford, Fairs Past and Present (1967); R. Weiss, Fairs, Pavilions, Exhibits and their Audiences (1982).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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