Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World's Fair of 1926

Thomas H. Keels
Book Cover

HC: $40.00
EAN: 978-1-4399-0329-2
Publication: Feb 17

Ebook: $40.00
EAN: 978-1-4399-0331-5

400 pages
6 x 9
100 halftones, 3 maps

It was meant to be the greatest world’s fair of all time—but it ended up as the “Flop Heard ’Round the World”

Read the Introduction (pdf).


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.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Great Fair

1. Philadelphia, 1916
2. As Welcome as Jazz Music at a Funeral
3. The Sesqui Sinks
4. Call Me Freel
5. The Sesqui Moves South
6. Philadelphia Progressive
7. Kendrick’s Karnival
8. A Fine Thing to Show the Nation
9. We’re All Good Americans Now
10. The Ladies of the Street
11. The Philadelphia Negro at the Sesqui
12. The Fight of the Century and a Half
13. A Royal Visit
14. Follies of 1926
15. For Sale: One Sesqui


About the Author(s)

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