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The first State Fair Premium List, Part 1

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Detail, 1853 Schedule of Premiums, Weekly Standard

Branch 1 of the 1853 premium list from the Weekly Standard. Click to see entire list.

The North Carolina State Fair, which began in October 1853, was created to help bolster progress and knowledge throughout a state that was, at that time, stereotyped as set in its agricultural ways. The Fair continues today, full of amusements and competitions. Each year at the Fair, contestants are encouraged to bring in prime examples of produce, livestock, crafts, and foods, with monetary awards going to those judged of the highest quality.  Before the Fair, premium lists are published that describe competition rules and prize amounts.  We have a pretty fantastic run of premium lists for the Fair in our collection, and we’ve been working on getting the entire run digitized.  NCSU, Duke and UNC have been excellent partners, helping us fill in some of the holes.

We know that, at least since 1860, the lists were published separately in booklets.  We’re unsure if the earliest lists (1853-1859) were published in booklet form, but we have found copies printed in several newspapers around the state.  For my next few blog posts, I thought I’d take a look at some of these premium lists and what they can tell us, starting with the first list from 1853.

The most recent Premium List booklets are over 300 pages.  They’re organized by “departments,” like Department I (Bees & Honey) or Department E (Flower and Garden Show), with detailed regulations.  The first list, as published in the North Carolina Weekly Standard on August 10, 1853, was considerably shorter.  At the time there were 8 “branches,” some of which are similar to the departments of today.

I think the first branch–Experiments–is the most interesting, because it really shows the spirit of what the Fair organizers were trying to encourage: agricultural experimentation and improvement and how that could be spread to other farmers throughout the state.  They list 14 experiment ideas which, if carried out, could net the farmer between $10 and $30 ($250-$770 today).  Some of these experiments include:

  • “How late, in reference to the growth, the last tillage [plowing the soil] … should be given to corn for its best-product; and whether the last tillage should be shallow or deep.”
  • “Benefits and products of guano [bird feces], compared to costs…”
  • “The marsh mud, or swamp muck, of peaty soil … as manure, in compost with lime or other materials, or otherwise.”

I also found it interesting that the one experiment that could net you the highest premium of $30 was the one involving tobacco. Although the tobacco boom associated with the Duke family was still 20+ years away, this labor-intensive crop was already an integral part of the state’s economy.

And even if you weren’t interested in experimenting, you could also win some money by putting your pen to a page and writing about agricultural techniques like crop rotation and different types of manure.  This was branch two, “Essays and Written Communication.”  The rest of the premium list looks similar to the lists of today, with different breeds of livestock, a variety of vegetables, or homegoods and machinery. I’d have loved to have seen the cheeses submitted – entries had to weigh at least 25 lbs!

There are some other interesting tidbits in this first premium list. Stay tuned later this month for what else I’ve found…

Check these out for more information about the State Fair:

Deep Fried @ the State Fair (the Fair’s fun and frolicking year-round blog)

Melton A. McLaurin’s book, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years (pick it up at your local library!)

NCpedia’s series of articles on the State Fair


  1. […] my last post, I gave you a description of what exactly a “premium list” is and started looking at […]

  2. […] done a couple of blog posts now about the State Fair premium lists, talking about what they are and some of the more unique entries from early lists. I’ve gotten to know these lists by […]

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