Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World's Fair of 1926
Publication: Feb 17
Publication: Feb 17
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.
"In his portrayal of the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial, Tom Keels has once again opened a wide, insightful and revealing historical lens on Philadelphia. It is hard to imagine how the flaws and fault lines in American society could be more stunningly exposed than in this fast-paced story of the 150th anniversary of the nation’s birth in the city where it all started. By tracing the political, social, cultural, and economic conflicts that inflicted the once promising event, Sesqui! portrays the ongoing tensions between good government reformers and the political machine, reinforces the second-class citizenry bestowed on women and African Americans, and vividly shows how the best intentions and investment can go so badly wrong through human error. Sesqui! is a great read that helps us better understand urban America in the early twentieth century."
—Sam Katz, Executive Producer, History Making Productions
"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."
—Nathaniel Popkin, Founding Editor, Hidden City Daily
"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."
"Author Thomas Keels describes in compelling detail the reasons for the (world's) fair's shortcomings, but he also offers readers a glimpse into late 1920s Philadelphia.... Sesqui is a masterful look back at Philadelphia's second world's fair. Keels' writing is both crisp and elegant, and the book is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand Philadelphia at a critical juncture in its history."
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