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July 1996

souvenir imageSouvenir: "The Voice of the Liberty Bell" from the Sesquicentennial International Exposition, 1776-1926, Philadelphia. Elliot Brewster, Publisher; Dan Smith, Artist.
Date: 1926    ID: 75.142.307

In 1876, Philadelphia celebrated the centennial of the founding of the United States of America with an extravagant and publicly successful world's fair. In 1926, Philadelphia was again the site of a celebration. This time, America was 150 years old, and the Sesqui-centennial International Exposition promised, according to the official guide book, "a visualization of the spiritual, scientific, economic, artistic and industrial progress that has been made in America and in the world during the last 50 years..."

However, the fair may have been doomed from the very beginning. Planning for the event did not even begin until 1921, and then was severely under-funded by the federal government and the state of Pennsylvania. The city, in fact, provided most of the money. After much deliberation, the site finally agreed upon fortunately already belonged in large part to Philadelphia. There was one drawback, however. It was swampland. Millions of yards of fill had to be brought in to "reclaim" the area. All these factors contributed to slow participation by businesses and state and federal governments, and consequently many of the pavilions were still unfinished on opening day.

The fair did hold some distinctions, however; the use of talking motion pictures, colored lighting, radio advertising, and public address systems. Indeed, the official guidebook for the exposition proudly states that one of the fair's most important new structures was the "great $3,000,000 Stadium accommodating 100,000 and equipped with a modern 'loud speaker' system." (The stadium, of course, is Municipal Stadium, later called John F. Kennedy Stadium.)

The highlight of the fair may have been High Street, a recreation of colonial Philadelphia. Visitors could stroll through 18th century American life although accented with the latest technology of moving pictures and loud speakers. Though contemporaries did not consider the Sesqui-centennial Exposition a success, the celebration did perhaps accomplish what it set out to do. The juxtaposition of the theme of the exposition may be best exemplified in the image of the souvenir; the "flapper-like" woman entwined in an American flag before the backdrop of Independence Hall illustrates the continuity of our achievements. In some way, it is the "visualization of the spiritual...progress" of America and remains part of the continuing story of this country and a tangible symbol of the American spirit. (Please click here for a detail of the image.)

For more information on world's fairs and the museum's ephemera collections, please contact the Research Center.


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