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A Day At The Fair, 200 Years Ago

A day the entire family can enjoy living history.

It was not just a place to purchase the latest household necessities or to be entertained by traveling musicians, actors, and sideshow style performers. It was the place to learn of current events, enjoy good gossip, exchange ideas and discuss the mood of the country. It was the 18th Century Craft Fair.

Each year, as the first breezes of autumn begin to caress the trees and drift along the shoreline of the Potomac River, that 200-year-old phenomena comes to life at Mount Vernon Estate. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15 and 16, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, it will make its 12th annual appearance with entertainment for the entire family.

The fair recreates a lively early-American marketplace. More than 50 juried artisans from throughout the nation will demonstrate their trades and sell their wares while two stages of entertainment delight audiences with 18th century amusements.

Mount Vernon's 18th Century Craft Fair has been hailed as the most authentic and diverse event of its kind, bringing together distinguished artisans working in colonial attire plus a dozen entertainers who perform the amusements loved by colonial Americans. As visitors shop, artisans demonstrate their crafts and explain their methods used to create items similar to those purchased by Washington, many of which are found in his restored plantation mansion.

AS DESCRIBED BY participating artisan Stuart Helble, who specializes in handcrafted pewter, "This is one of the very special events that we attend. To be at this site where our craft was well used on an everyday basis is the epitome of our trade."

During the 18th century there were approximately 1,100 pewter artisans spread throughout the colonies. Now there are only 50 to 60 pewtersmiths in the nation, according to Helble.

Today's pewter dinnerware can be used as serving pieces because it contains no lead. However, even in colonial times, pewter contained only one- percent lead; that was a rule of the pewtersmith guild, according to Helble.

Throughout the fair grounds there are artisans creating a wide range of items from furniture to candles, cookware, clothing, and art. The latter can be found in a variety mediums and styles. Attendees can also enjoy direct interaction with the artisans.

George and Martha Washington will preside over a host of amusements including: The James Rose Puppets; Mr. Bayly, Conjuring and Entertainments; Signora Bella, Equilibrist; Otto the Sword Swallower; Ship's Company Chanteymen; and much more. Visitors are invited to participate in swordplay, drum lessons, open hearth cooking, and many other 18th century activities. Free guided walking tours and Potomac River sightseeing cruises will be available while tickets are available.

What would a day at the fair be without some authentic 18th century fare? Offerings range from turkey legs to ice cream to pretzels provided by the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant concession stands.

Early American marketplaces were common in George Washington's time. They ranged in duration from a few days to several weeks. The earliest know fair in the Mount Vernon area occurred in 1752 in a place that is now called Alexandria.

Admission to the fair is included with regular admission to the Estate: Adults $13; Children 6 to 11, $6; and children five and under free.

This year's attendees have the extra treat of also visiting Mount Vernon's new museum/education center, which traces the life of Washington from his youth as a surveyor to his untimely death in 1799. This new $110 million museum/education center incorporates three comprehensive films plus a series smaller vignettes and interactive exhibits.