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Folksy Remembrances of County Fairs
by Bob Brooke



Last year, I attended a large antiques show in York, Pennsylvania. Among the items I found there was a large glass showcase containing all sorts of small ceramic figurines. Among them were about a dozen china figures posed in domestic scenes. Most had some sort of caption painted on the front of the base. The sign said “Fairings.” What exactly are they and where did they come from?



China fairings originated at English county fairs around 1860. They are small porcelain knick-knacks that stand from three to five inches tall and depict a variety of scenes, some humorous, others political or domestic. They got their name because they were given away as prizes at Victorian fairs in much the same way that stuffed animals are today. Some were also for sale.

Fairings almost always have a base and many have a caption describing the scene or making some point inscribed on the front of the base. Although the majority of fairings are simply decorative, they were occasionally made in the form of pinboxes, matchstrikers or holders for watches or small mirrors. Some came in pairs, such as "Grandpapa and Grandma," two separate statuettes of a small boy and girl, each dressed in adults' clothing.

Fairings were popular among the Victorian working class from 1860 to just after the death of Queen Victoria. Purchased for a few pence or won as prizes, workers who often got the day off to attend the county fair, valued and collected them as a reminder of the day at the fair. As the century progressed, the growth of the railways and transport networks led to increased mobility and the commercial importance of the county fair declined. And during the later part of the century, fairings were more likely to be sold in shops than be prizes at a fair.

Conta and Boehme of Possneck, Saxony, Germany, manufactured most fairings. The company developed a mass production method that none of their competitors could match, giving them an advantage over other firms. Their competitors also made hollow molds, making their pieces easy to spot.

The technologically advanced German potteries were able to produce the small brightly colored, gilded fairings inexpensively for the mass market. They made them of white soft-paste porcelain, assembling them from several molds, then fired, glazed, fired them a second time, and subsequently had painted and gilded them. Conta & Boehme made fairings from about 1860 to 1914. Several other factories in the area also produced fairings but theirs were of lesser quality. The production of fairings ended with the start of World War I.

Fairing Subject Matter
The German pottery’s British agents gave them ideas for subject matter based on courtship, marriage, everyday life, popular songs, characters and events from the period. Fairings featured maidens, newly weds, drunks, couples, and figures having fun. Though some had more serious subjects, the majority were light hearted. Towards the end of fairing production, there was a shift towards more sentimental scenes.

Fairing Captions
Most fairings had captions in black or red copperplate script. The subject matter that inspired fairings varies widely and provides an interesting insight into the popular culture of the Victorian era. Popular songs and music hall numbers inspire some of them, such as "Jenny Jones and Ned Morgan" and "Champagne Charlie is my name". Others commemorate notable people or buildings such as Ladies of Llangollen—relating to the scandalous affair of Lady Eleanor Butler and Lady Sarah Ponsonby—or "The Model of Laxey"—the Laxey Wheel on the Isle of Mann, the largest metal water wheel in the world. The captions on some fairings were a little more obscure, such as "How's business?" on one fairing and "Slack!" on its partner, inspired by the same design on a drinking cup from the time.

Beds feature heavily in the domestic scenes, so much so that people once referred to them as "bedpieces.” The captions on these fairings often indicate a cynical attitude to marriage, for example "When a man is married his troubles begin" on a fairing showing a man nursing a crying baby. Another shows a man cowering from his wife with the caption "Home from the club he fears the storm." Many, on the other hand, are simply charming, for example "God Save the Queen," depicting a family gathered around a piano, or "Which is prettiest?," depicting three beautiful little girls.

Politics inspired other captions, such as "English neutrality 1870 Attending the sick and the wounded," commemorating the fact that Britain didn’t become involved in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Others were moralistic, such as "Seeing him home," showing a drunk being escorted home by a spirit and the grim reaper, both dressed as undertakers.

Occasionally fairing captions descended into the downright rude, such as "The early bird catches the worm," in which a goose pecked at what it thought was a worm, only to cause pain to a young lad who is relieving himself. Another one was "Review" in which two lecherous men admire a scantily clad woman emerging from bathing.

The Seven Categories of Fairings
Collectors classify fairings into seven categories based on their general value and rarity. Category A contains the most common fairings, and the categories go up through B, C, D, E, F and finally X for the rarest and most valuable fairings. Books on fairings sometimes assign price ranges to these categories, but most collectors don’t rely on them.

Dating Fairings
Earlier fairings usually had more detail since they lost definition with wear and tear on the molds and sometimes had four-digit numbers incised on the base. Conta & Boehme, the first manufacturers, were the best. They featured amusing mottoes in . Early Conta & Boehme pieces are unmarked, but after the late 1870s they adopted the mark of a crooked arm holding a dagger. Conta & Boehme began to number their pieces about the same time as they marked them. Numbers run from 2850 to 2899 and from 3300 to 3385. At first, the numbers were scratched into the base; later they were embossed. Any pieces that are unmarked, have a heavy Germanic or Roman script and are stamped 'Made in Germany' on the base are not Conta & Boehme fairings.
However, these lack the Conta & Boehme's shield/dagger mark which the company didn’t use until after 1845. Fairings from 1850-1860 were generally larger than those from later on. After 1890 the colors of Conta & Boehme fairings became brighter and more colorful. And if “Made in Germany” appears on the bottom of a fairing, it dates from after 1891, when all ceramics had to show their country of origin.

Collecting Fairings
People collect fairings as pieces of folk art. At one time, the annual fair was the biggest event in every country district. Fairgoers won some as prizes, but most were sold for a few pence to adorn cottage mantelpieces. Much of their charm lies in their very British humor, bright, cheerful and often a little crude.

They shared a cast of characters with music-hall skits and Edwardian saucy postcards. Buxom matrons, hapless youths, innocent and not-so-innocent maidens, outraged fathers, henpecked or erring husbands, nervous newly-weds, old lechers and swaying drunkards were all grist to the comic mill.

The value of a fairing depends largely on its rarity. While many were made, they were cheap objects, not meant to be treasured, so people threw many of them away when they broke. Ironically, the charm of fairings is in their folksy appeal, so small repairs don’t necessarily affect their value. In fact, do-it-yourself mending may enhance it.

Genuine fairings are now keenly sought by serious collectors. In the United Kingdom they can range in price from a few dollars for the more common ones, such as "Last in bed to put out the light," to several hundred dollars for the rarer ones. The most keenly sought after are the five fairings in the Vienna series, all without captions, but characterized by a gold band around the base.

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