The United States Sanitary Commission was a voluntary organization developed at the beginning of the Civil War to aid in the care of soldiers in the Union army. The commission was an outgrowth of the Woman's Central Association of Relief, an organization to coordinate soldiers' aid in the New York City area and was similar to the British Sanitary Commission that had been created during the Crimean War. Henry W. Bellows, a New York City Unitarian minister, and physicians, Jacob Harsen, Elisha Harris, and William Van Buren were the original founders of the Commission. The Commission received official recognition through an executive order signed by Abraham Lincoln, June 19, 1861. The American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, became the Commission's secretary and chief executive officer. The goals of the Commission were to relay the latest medical and scientific knowledge to army doctors and to implement sanitary reforms to prevent the spread of contagious diseases in the army. Higher standards in diet, clothing, hygiene, and housing were promoted by the Commission. The Commission also collected materials and organized a distribution system for supplies contributed by volunteers.
As the intensity of the war increased, so did the need for a continuous supply of goods and money. On October 1, 1861, the U. S. Sanitary Commission issued a circular "To all loyal women of America" asking for their assistance in soliciting aid for the soldiers. The women in the Union states formed Aid Societies and "energetic committees," and as the war went on, these societies continually increased their efforts for the benefit of Army Relief. In 1863, the Aid Societies began arranging novel exhibitions in large cities that became popularly known as "Sanitary Fairs." The fairs included exhibits, farm products, manufactures from the machine shop, art objects, and works by skilled artisans. The material aid raised by these Fairs was significant and added greatly to the overall success of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. By the end of the war, the Commission had spent funds and dispensed supplies totaling fifteen million dollars to benefit the Northern soldiers.