Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition Association:
Processing Notes about Records
at Philadelphia City Archives

The Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition Association was the organization which planned and administered the major international exposition held in Philadelphia from May 30 through November 30, 1926, in honor of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The idea for the exposition is said to have originated in 1916 when the merchant, John Wanamaker, expressed interest in the sesqui-centennial as an opportunity for Philadelphia to serve as the focus for an international gathering which would rival the great U.S. Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876. World War I intervened and discussion of the sesqui-centennial did not resume until 1920, when a committee assembled to form the Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition Association which was incorporated on May 9, 1921. Various sites were considered and League Island near the U.S. Navy Yard in South Philadelphia was selected. The Association employed experienced world's fair planners and professionals to prepare the buildings and grounds which filled 450 acres and to organize the exposition and related events which were subsidized by public and private funds. Thirty foreign nations participated in the event which attracted seven million visitors. Participation lagged behind expectations, however, and financial problems dogged the project from beginning to end. The Association passed into receivership in 1927 and several years passed before the claims of the organization's many creditors were resolved in U.S. district court.

The records of the Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition Association were placed at the Free Library of Philadelphia at the close of the exposition and were later transferred to the Philadelphia City Archives. The records were processed in 1996-97 with support from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Extent of Holdings

The official records of the Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition Association at the Philadelphia City Archives represent the largest extant body of material concerning this event. They consist of approximately 40 cubic feet of holdings dating from 1920 through 1931 including 29 record storage cartons, 18 volumes of newspaper clippings, 3 map file drawers, and 4 photographic albums containing approximately 4,000 black-and-white prints. The records are primarily made up of the files of the administrative staff who organized and conducted the Sesqui-Centennial from 1925-26. Also included are minutes and correspondence of the Sesqui-Centennial Association board who initiated the project in the early 1920s and the numerous voluntary boards staffed by Philadelphians noted in their fields to plan appropriate events and activities in such fields as athletics, business and industry, fine arts, medicine, music, transportation, and black history. Notable among these was the Women's Committee which organized a historical reconstruction of Philadelphia in 1776 that proved highly popular.

Processing Notes

The processing of the Sesqui-Centennial Association records conducted in 1996-97 primarily focused on the files of the Sesqui's officers and management which were in dire need of attention because of their large quantity of deteriorating paper including numerous carbons of letters and memoranda. Two additional bodies of documentation--the photographic albums and the scrapbooks of newspaper clippings--still await further processing and the Archives plans to address the preservation and access needs of these holdings in the near future. The recent work built upon the preliminary processing of the Sesqui-Centennial records conducted by Ward Childs in 1969-70 and the series list which was prepared at that time and subsequently published in the Descriptive Inventory of the Archives of the City and County of Philadelphia ( 1970 ). Two features of the recent processing activity bear mention. First, as in 1969-70, archival processing staff noted that some of the files of the Sesqui's operating departments such as Exhibits, Concessions and Admissions, and Domestic Participation and Special Events were filed according to a hierarchical classification scheme and that the classification numbers appeared on the file labels of files used in these offices as well as on the individual items contained within the folders. Typically this classification scheme included a letter and number sequence separated by decimal points (i.e., "G.7.1"). However, since no one, to our knowledge, has ever been able to locate a master list of the classification system, archives personnel have not been able to use the system in more than a limited way in preparing the records for research use. The old classification numbers were transferred to the folder labels when the materials were refoldered this past year and the original file order of that classification system--for those portions of the organizational records where it was used--has been retained. Second, and significantly, the recent archival processing resulted in the discovery of an "Operating Organization Chart" dated 23 March 1926 (Map Case Folder 12, Blueprints). The chart clarified the relationship between the various departments and sub-units within the organization instituted by the Sesqui-Centennial association officers to administer the work of the exposition. This information has enabled the archives to relate portions of the records which had become fragmented over time to a structural framework as described in the following pages.

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This page last updated on 22 April 1998