Victorian Charity Bazaars
An important piece in the history of fundraising and female philanthropy
Background: Charity bazaars – also known as “fancy fairs” or “ladies’ sales” – were a staple of 19th and early 20th century philanthropy. Their roots appear to go back to London’s “Soho Bazaar”. This was set up after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815/16 by military contractor John Trotter with the aim to help soldiers’ widows, daughters and orphans. Converting superfluous warehouse space into individual market stalls that could be rent on a daily basis, the Soho Bazaar offered these individuals the opportunity to sell produce and home made items, thereby alleviating or preventing poverty.
From around 1820, the idea of “the bazaar” was increasingly appropriated for fairs aimed at raising funds for charity more broadly, with many philanthropic organisations relying on charity bazaars for their annual funding. Almost exclusively organised and run by women, charity bazaars could range from small events lasting a day or two, to major week-long extravaganzas. Common to these events was the ambition to put fun into fundraising, to combine charity with carnival and commerce. Thus, the bazaars not only provided stalls selling handmade items, donated goods and agricultural products, but also offered various entertainments, such as puppet shows, plays and curiosities, as well as competitions: from clothes washing tournaments for men to whistling contests for women.
Alongside the event, a book of the bazaar was sometimes published and sold. As an additional fundraising opportunity, such books served as programmes, detailing times, dates and locations of activities, provided advertisement space sold to local businesses and sponsors, or, if published after the event, offered a summary and highlights of the bazaar, and drew attention to the overall amount raised.
The bazaar format was popular across the whole of Britain and exported globally to numerous countries, including Africa, Australia, India and North America. In Scotland alone, more than 300 charity bazaars were held every year between 1880 and 1910. While records are sparse, and details increasingly hard to come by, there are indications that Victorian charity bazaars contributed tens of millions of pounds to the 19th century British charity landscape. In addition to raising funds for churches, hospitals and schools, sport clubs featured as a prominent bazaar benefactor: from the Cupar cricket club to the Melrose football one.
Relevance for understanding philanthropy: While bazaars have seen limited exploration in charity and philanthropy research, they offer three important insights. First of all, charity bazaars are a rarely acknowledged step in the history of charity/thrift shops, as well as in the development of various fundraising activities, such as telethons. Secondly, with women as the driving force behind charity bazaars, these events point to the importance of women for philanthropy and of philanthropy for women in Victorian times. Independently of whether charity bazaars provided a step towards women’s professional empowerment, organising and running these events offered an opportunity to escape the restrictions and constraints of Victorian society. Finally, criticisms levelled at charity bazaars point to early concerns about the combining of charity and commerce, morality and markets.
Dyer, G.R. (1991), The “Vanity Fair” of Nineteenth-Century England: Commerce, Women, and the East in the Ladies’ Bazaar, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 46(2):196-222
Le Zotte, J. (2013), “Not Charity, but a Chance”: Philanthropic Capitalism and the Rise of American Thrift Stores, 1894-1930, The New England Quarterly, 86(2):169-195
Giles, J (2017), Charity Bazaars in Scotland, https://blog.nls.uk/charity-bazaars-in-scotland/
Prochaska, F. (1977), Charity Bazaars In Nineteenth-Century England. Journal of British Studies, 16(2):62-84
Thorne-Murphy, L. (2007), The Charity Bazaar and Women’s Professionalization in Charlotte Mary Yonge’s “The Daisy Chain”, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 47(4):881-899
Drawing on findings from our How Philanthropy shapes Scotland project, our monthly Scottish Philanthropy Snippet explores the spectrum of people, places and practices that have contributed to the history of philanthropy in Scotland.