In 1916, Philadelphia department-store magnate John Wanamaker launched plans for a Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in 1926. It would be a magnificent world's fair to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 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 fair was unfinished, with a few shabbily built and mostly empty structures. Crowds stayed away in droves: fewer than five million paying customers attended, 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.
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 http://www.thomaskeels.com/.
"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