Friday, July 29, 2016

1926 Meets 1776 at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial

In 1876, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition kicked off the craze for world’s fairs that would grip the United States into the 20th century. Each subsequent fair was bigger and more successful than the last—Chicago in 1893, St. Louis in 1904, San Francisco in 1915. So when it came time for Philadelphians to start planning a fair to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it was only natural to assume that it, too, would succeed wildly. After all, they were returning to the site of the first American fair, it was a period of economic prosperity, and the Colonial Revival was in full swing. 

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
But there was one part of the fair that succeeded, and in fact prevented the whole thing from being a complete financial disaster. This was High Street, made up of reproductions of 21 structures from various parts of colonial Philadelphia, brought together to create an imagined 18th-century neighborhood. Organized and operated by the Women’s Committee, High Street was intended to provide fairgoers with “a temporary escape from the complexity of modern society.” Here there were “no radios, no Charleston Dancers, no automobiles, no skyscrapers, no night clubs, no traffic semaphores.” Instead, there were town criers, hostesses in ruffled caps, and (of course) weekly pageants. In its own way, however, High Street did address the world of 1926 by suggesting ways in which Americans could come to terms with modernity by looking to the past.

The President’s House, based on the Philadelphia
residence of Washington and Adams
High Street directly or indirectly addressed three main issues: anxiety about excessive materialism and consumerism, the changing roles of women in the wake of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and the shifting demographics of Philadelphia (and the nation as a whole). In all of these cases, looking back at the colonial period provided reassurance that these changes were not as dramatic as they seemed. 

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.

Pageant performer
In a similar fashion, the organizers of High Street tried to show visitors that they should not be worried about women’s expanded public roles because women had in fact always been important parts of public life, even in the 18th century. The exhibits showed that even when women were not directly involved in politics, they still were essential to the civic, economic, and social life of the nation. At the same time, the domestic setting of the High Street exhibits assured visitors that women were not going to abandon their responsibilities at home. Modern women were simply adding electoral politics to these other activities.

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
“Loyalty’s Gift”
UMass Amherst Special Collections
However, the fair’s organizers did not achieve their goal of making sure that their vision of the past was the only one represented—largely because African-American and immigrant organizations pushed back strongly against their exclusion. Irish, Polish, Italian, Swedish, and Jewish groups held exhibits, parades, and pageants in order to demonstrate the contributions they had made to American history and to show that they were also loyal Americans. 

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).


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