It was meant to be the greatest world's fair of all time—but it ended up as the "Flop Heard 'Round the World"
Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World's Fair of 1926
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Thomas H. Keels
In 1916, department store magnate and Grand Old Philadelphian John Wanamaker launched plans for a Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in his hometown in 1926. It would be a magnificent world's fair to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Wanamaker hoped that the "Sesqui" would also transform sooty, industrial Philadelphia into a beautiful Beaux-Arts city.
However, when the Sesqui opened on May 31, 1926, in the remote, muddy swamps of South Philadelphia, the first visitors were stunned to find an unfinished fair, with a few shabbily built and mostly empty structures. Crowds stayed away in droves: fewer than five million paying customers attended the Sesqui, costing the city millions of dollars. Philadelphia became a national scandal—a city so corrupt that one political boss could kidnap an entire world's fair.
In his fascinating history Sesqui!, noted historian Thomas Keels situates this ill-fated celebration—a personal boondoggle by the all-powerful Congressman William S. Vare-against the transformations taking place in America during the 1920s. Keels provides a comprehensive account of the Sesqui as a meeting ground for cultural changes sweeping the country: women's and African-American rights, anti-Semitism, eugenics, Prohibition, and technological advances.
"The close observer of Philadelphia is always searching for the reason that the city fell so far behind its peers in the twentieth century. How did so much industrial wealth amount to so little civic grandeur, even during the roaring twenties? Why did Philadelphia lose its historically vital influence over the nation and the world, while its peer cities gained? How is it possible that only two of a planned dozen or more subway lines got built? Tom Keels' convincing answer to all these questions is the tragicomic disaster of the Sesqui-Centennial, a planned world's fair that spun itself and the city into muddy ground. In Sesqui!, Keels reveals the devastating interplay of the South Philadelphia-based Republican political machine known as The Organization, Republican reformers, elitists, and an incompetent mayor seemingly owned by everyone from which the city could never recover."
"Historian Keels recounts Philadelphia's spectacularly unsuccessful attempt in 1926 to celebrate the sesquicentennial of American independence with a world's fair.... The author demonstrates at length how the fair was entangled with local and state factional politics.... (R)eaders get broader context in a series of well-presented chapters that address the fascinating intersection of the fair with important national issues related to immigration, race, gender, and even sports."
"Seeing as some of today's civic leaders are pushing to have the country's 250th birthday celebration (in 2026) be based in Philly, a new cautionary tale couldn't be better timed. Historian Thomas H, Keels' Sesqui! ...detail(s) some surprising triumphs...set against an all-too-familiar panoply of, well, greed, graft, and civic ineptitude."
"Thomas H. Keels' new book Sesqui! answers the question, 'What if Philadelphia hosted a world's fair and no one came?'.... Keels' well-documented tome recalls Sesqui's attempted grandeur, its few high points (it hosted the classic boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney), and its many low points."
"Keels examines the origin and trials and tribulations of Philadelphia's 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition.... present[ing] a persuasive portrait of the political, economic, and cultural hurdles that this fair's organizers experienced, especially the multitiered tensions of city, state, and federal levels of governmental interactions.... The author carefully crafts a narrative that includes a discussion of important sociocultural elements linked to the nation's and Philadelphia's history.... Written in clear prose and carefully researched, the text is enhanced by myriad photographs throughout. Summing Up: Recommended."
Thomas H. Keels is a historian and lecturer who has authored or co-authored seven books and numerous articles on Philadelphia history, including Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City (Temple), Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, and Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love. A confirmed taphophile, Keels has been a tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia's premier Victorian necropolis, for two decades. Visit him online at www.thomaskeels.com.