Sesqui! by Thomas H. Keels

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926
by Thomas H. Keels
Temple University Press,  376 pp, cloth $40

There are only a few physical remains of the Sesquicentennial International Exposition, a world’s fair staged in Philadelphia in 1926 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of American independence. These include two small lakes, a lookout gazebo, and a tan brick building that housed the Russian Tea Pavilion — all located in what is now called FDR Park in far South Philadelphia. When the fair is remembered at all, it is regarded as a flop and an embarrassment for the City of Brotherly Love. Many of the buildings and exhibits were not ready for the official opening, it rained 107 of the 184 days, and rampant political corruption resulted in an unsuitable location for the fairgrounds. Perhaps most telling of all, only 5 million visitors came through the turnstiles, half the number who had gone to Philadelphia’s fantastically successful Centennial Exposition 50 years before.

Author Thomas Keels describes in compelling detail the reasons for the fair’s shortcomings, but he also offers readers a glimpse into late 1920s Philadelphia. The display of the American Eugenics Society at the fair proclaimed the racial superiority of northern Europeans, a message that the Ku Klux Klan sought to reinforce with a rally on the grounds. Fortunately, Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick was shamed into withdrawing permits for the hate organization to parade or assemble as a body. Philadelphia’s large African American community hoped to showcase their accomplishments but was disappointed when none of their leaders were allowed to participate in any official events. In contrast, a group of patrician women received special praise for their sponsorship of the exhibit High Street: Old Philadelphia 1776, which featured replicas of colonial houses and other structures.

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.

David R. Contosta
Chestnut Hill College