Historic Sites

Recreating the Philadelphia of 1776

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The preparations for the Sesquicentennial as well as all the events, activities, and buildings that were a part of the celebration required a large amount of organization and management. The administration of the Sesquicentennial was performed by a Board of Directors, an Executive Committee, and a variety of individual committees (including the Automobile Traffic Committee, Music Committee, and Publicity Committee) that managed specific areas of the Exposition.

Although the Board of Directors and various committees included female members, a separate Women’s Committee was also formed on October 16, 1925. The group originally included one hundred members appointed by Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick, the Mayor of Philadelphia and President of the Sesquicentennial, with Mrs. J. Willis Martin serving as leader of the Women’s Board. On February 8, 1926, the group decided to become a large general committee. This committee would eventually have over two thousands members and include over forty sub-committees.[1]

Among their many contributions, the Women’s Committee promoted the Sesquicentennial across the country, served as hostesses and greeters at several Exposition buildings, and established and maintained information booths at hotels, railroad stations, and other locations across Philadelphia.[2] The Women’s Committee, as well as many members of the Board of Directors and visitors to the Exposition, considered their greatest contribution to be the construction and management of High Street, a recreation of High Street (later known as Market Street) in Philadelphia in 1776 that included 20 houses, the Market Place, the Town Hall, and several gardens. Each house such as the Girard Counting House, Franklin Print Shoppe, and Jefferson House was maintained by a different women’s organization and decorated in a style consistent with the Revolutionary period.[3] Activities on the street included appearances by the town crier, daily marionette performances, and weekly pageants. High Street saw a large amount of visitors during the Sesquicentennial and one newspaper reporter wrote that “here is another place to linger, and many do linger.”[4]

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While High Street attracted many visitors, it also presented an idealized view of American history. Dirt, lawlessness, discord, and injustice did not exist in the reconstructed High Street. One hostess who spoke with visitors on High Street saw the reconstruction as a way to demonstrate that the country’s beginnings were dignified rather than chaotic and tawdry.[5] High Street at the Sesquicentennial was one of several living history museums and parks that were formed beginning in the 1920s. These institutions, such as Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village, would prove popular among visitors but also become the object of debate regarding the accuracy of their representations of history.

As an attraction at the Sesquicentennial, High Street showed the commitment of large numbers of women and women’s organizations to the Exposition. Although the Sesquicentennial did not achieve financial success and suffered from disorganization and low attendance, High Street proved to be a popular attraction according to the fair’s organizers who stated that it “was a source of renewed confidence in the deep foundations of American life, and as such it undoubtedly had a lasting effect on the millions who visited it.”[6]

[1] Austin, E.L. and Odell Hauser, Editors. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition: A Record Based on Official Data and Departmental Reports. Philadelphia: Current Publications, Inc., 1929, p. 153.

[2] Ibid., 157-158.

[3] Ibid., 161-162.

[4] The New York Times. “Sesquicentennial is Now Complete.” August 22, 1926.

[5] Conn, Steven. Museums and American Intellectual Life: 1876-1926. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 241.

[6] Austin, E.L. and Odell Hauser, Editors. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition: A Record Based on Official Data and Departmental Reports. Philadelphia: Current Publications, Inc., 1929, p. 20.