Though the historical traditions of trade go back to Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire when journeying traders met local producers in market places and bazaars, the term "fair" was only used for the first time in the Middle Ages.

The term "fair" comes from the Latin word "feria", meaning a religious festival, usually taking place near a convent or a church. The same sense is to be found in the term currently used in German - "Messe", which derives from the Latin term "Missa", or religious service, at which the priest, on pronouncing the final words "ite, Missa est" declared the religious service at an end thus giving the sign for the opening of the market, usually held in the church square.

The first known fair in this sense was the "Foire de Saint Denis" near Paris, founded by King Dagobert in 629, and which by 710 was already attracting more than 700 merchants.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, with the evolution of manufacturing arising from the Industrial Revolution, fairs evolved from sites for direct sales to sites displaying a broad range of available goods: only samples of much more diverse product ranges were exhibited. These were known as Sample Fairs (from the German "Mustermesse"), initiated for the first time by the Leipzig Fair.

Despite the emergence of high-speed, electronic communications methods during the 20th century, fairs today continue to rank as one of the most dynamic and effective sales and marketing tools in existence. In the context of today's modern economy, fairs continue to unite all market partners providing a unique opportunity for personal contact. This is truly the only marketing communications medium allowing the full exploitation of all five senses in an environment of face-to-face interaction.


North America

United States of America

Unfortunately handicapped by the nature of its own youthful history, it is important, certainly in today's economic climate, to include North America. And that is not to say it doesn't earn its inclusion. Picking up on the success of the previously mentioned 1851 Great Exhibition, the first world's fair, a group of prominent New Yorkers organised America's first international fair in New York City in 1853. Since that first fair in New York City, its history was inextricably bound to the industrial and social progress of America, through the Depression to the showing of an early motion picture at a fair in Chicago. The Pledge of Allegiance was written for the dedication ceremonies of the Chicago exposition and the Liberty Bell (a potent symbol in America, this bell was rung to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776) journeyed to many of the fairs.

The largest and oldest exhibition venue in the United States is McCormick's Place in Chicago. McCormick's Place boasts 840,000 square feet of exhibition space as well as a 45,000 square foot ballroom, the largest in the city. Opened in 1960, the original building was destroyed by fire seven years later. However, through the efforts of the city and state, a new facility, the East Building, was constructed in record time and opened in 1971. Due to increased demand a second structure was opened in1986 and a third ten years on.



Without much in the way of early history to dissect, the most notable fair in England to mention must be the first world's fair, the Great Exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. Spread over 700,000 feet and with a total of six million visitors, everything about this event was on a grand scale. At this time Great Britain was arguably the leader of the industrial revolution and feeling very secure in that ideal. The Great Exhibition was conceived to symbolise this industrial, military and economic superiority. Naturally, the initial impetus for the idea can be traced to a competitive reaction to the French Industrial Exposition of 1844.


France throws down the gauntlet with a fine challenge to the rest of the world. The first known fair in France in the sense we understand was the 'Foire de Saint Denis' near Paris, founded by King Dagobert in 629 A.D. By 710, this was already attracting more than 700 merchants to engage in what is, without a shadow of a doubt, the finest method of marketing known to man. Thankfully, it's unlikely that any who might disagree with that last comment will be reading.


Two detailed entries from Germany, namely Leipzig and Frankfurt. Messe Frankfurt claims to be situated in the world's oldest trade fair city, with a history dating back to the 12th century. The Frankfurt autumn fair is first mentioned in the Assumption holiday in the year 1150 A.D. and is believed to have had its origins in the 11th century as a harvest fair. From here, progress is well documented, through being recognized by imperial privilege in 1240, establishing the book fair in 1480 and becoming the center of European and German book printing by the close of the fifteenth century, languishing through war and subsequently revitalized as a banking and exchange center in the 19th century.

Messe Leipzig share their German brethren's talent for recording history. It seems they lag behind Frankfurt, as in 1497 A.D., Kaiser Maximilian I gets them underway by granting Leipzig the privilege of holding trade fairs. After that it seems, they never looked back, and in 1997 held a festival to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the 'Imperial Privilege for Leipzig to Hold Trade Fairs'. Quite a party, one would imagine.
An important pioneering aspect of Leipzig's history that should be flagged up is their initiation of Sample Fairs (from the German 'Mustermesse'). These developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the evolution of manufacturing arising from the Industrial Revolution. Fairs, in turn, evolved from sites for direct sales to sites displaying a broad range of available goods and only samples of much more diverse product ranges were exhibited.


From the Dutch, we unfortunately didn't manage to uncover the origins of the industry there. However, in the Utrecht archive, there is a copy of an ancient enactment which records that in 1127 A.D., Godebald, bishop of Utrecht, announced by declaration that the city of Utrecht was granted to organise four fairs per year.
There is no indication as to how many had taken place before the enactment, but it seems fair to assume (no pun intended) that the wily Dutch clergy had experienced a trade fair somewhere and realised the money-making potential, and acted accordingly.
Soon, Utrecht had become an important market place for the region. However, foreign exhibitors would have found themselves in a bind if any attempt had been made on their part to exhibit there. In those protectionist days, boundaries were sacred, so only products of Dutch origin were permitted to be exhibited. One imagines a proliferation of windmills, clogs and tulips at this time.

The Middle East (the winner so far)


This is the one to beat. From a book in Hebrew by Isaac Shelav entitled, Exhibitions, 1440 Minutes of Success or Failure, published in 2002, we learn that the Middle Eastern exhibition industry began with those famous sea-faring traders, the Phoenicians, around the second half of the ninth century B.C. Their market was the entire Mediterranean and their home base, the city of Tyre, was located in modern day Lebanon. Here, goods from all over the region were brought in and resold. In reference to Tyre, the word 'fair' is mentioned in the Bible (Ezekiel, Chapter 27) for the first time, 'Thy riches and thy fairs, thy merchandise..'.
Unfortunately, the Bible is our only evidence for these fairs existing, and there is the possibility that the word carried a different meaning here than the one we understand. However, Mr. Shelav has more tricks up his sleeve.
The most solid Middle Eastern contender is the town of Batana. Situated on an important commercial road junction in the district of Jerusalem, it was a well-known trade town during the reign of that notorious baby-killer of Christian theology fame, King Herod, who ruled between 40 and 4 B.C. Herod reportedly constructed a magnificent venue of sorts in Batana for the express purpose of exchanging goods from all over the area. Measuring 3,200 square meters, it was a covered area surrounded by a massive wall.
Archeological digs have shown that the Batana fairground was a site of international activity. Varieties of coins indicate merchants from all over the Roman Empire, such as Syria, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain and even France came to trade.

We take this opportunity to invite anyone from countries not featured in this overview to tell us of their own trade fair histories to be included in the future.
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