Yet the 1926 fair was plagued with troubles from the start, and it had hardly begun before the general consensus emerged that the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition was a disappointment and a failure. Some observers even argued that the great age of fairs was over—there were simply too many other entertainment options available competing for attention. Why should someone travel to a fair when he or she could experience the world via radio or the movies, or just by going to a department store?
|Colonial musicians parading on High Street|
|The President’s House, based on the Philadelphia |
residence of Washington and Adams
The buildings of High Street were each run by a different organization, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the League of Women Voters, which used their building to promote their ideas and sometimes to sell products. Most of the houses were decorated with modern reproductions of colonial furnishings, provided by department stores and other businesses. The sponsoring companies then produced pamphlets that were essentially catalogs telling visitors where these items could be purchased. The overall impression created by these interiors was that “colonial people had been surrounded by the material abundance of modern society,” and that consuming material goods “was a longstanding American tradition.” Americans in 1926, then, need not feel anxious about their own consumption habits.
The question of racial and ethnic diversity was harder to handle. The organizers of High Street were members of Philadelphia’s old-stock, white Protestant elite, and they believed they should continue to be the city’s cultural and political leaders. They thus used the fair to reassert their own (largely fictive) versions of a homogeneous past dominated by their ancestors. On High Street, for example, the only non-white people to be found were the black musicians performing “plantation songs” in the tavern.
|Circular advertising the pageant|
UMass Amherst Special Collections
For African-Americans, efforts to include black history at the Sesquicentennial were part of a broader movement among black leaders to find a “usable past.” Their messages were intended for both white and black audiences: to counteract portrayals of the past that excluded or denigrated African-Americans, and to strengthen racial pride. Historical exhibits, pageants, and speeches aimed to correct the notion that blacks did not have a history in America, or at least not one that was relevant to white Americans. They demonstrated that blacks had a distinct history but one that was also inseparable from wider American history.
Historians still disagree about the reasons for the Sesquicentennial’s low attendance, though the weather certainly had something to do with it—it rained 107 out of 184 open days. And as it turned out, the era of world’s fairs was not over. The Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933-34, and the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 would both be very successful fairs. Both of these fairs took different approaches than the Sesqui, fully embracing modernity and looking to the future for inspiration. In some ways, we might see 1926 as the last of the “Victorian” fairs, but in others, such as the way High Street tried to make the past relevant to the present, it was decidedly of the 20th century.
Lydia Mattice Brandt, ”Picturing Female Patriotism in Three Dimensions: High Street at the 1926 Sesquicentennial,” in Meet Me at the Fair: A World’s Fair Reader (2014).
Calista K. Cleary, “The Past is Present: Historical Representation at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition,” PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (1999).
Ellen Freedman, “The Women’s Committee and Their High Street Exhibit at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition of 1926,” MS Thesis, University of Pennsylvania (1988).