Archival Adventures in Small Repositories

Sesquicentennial Memories at Strawberry Mansion

Wednesday, 1/18/12

The Sesquicentennial International Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1926, is widely considered to be a monumental flop. Hoping to recreate the success of the Centennial Exposition of 1876, funders pumped a veritable fortune into building a temporary city on what is now Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. For goodness’ sake, the first bridge between Philadelphia and New Jersey (today known as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) was built in greedy anticipation of hordes of paying customers. But the hordes didn’t come, and, embarrassingly, the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association was placed in equity receivership in 1927 for its inability to pay off its debts.

In the midst of this disappointment and scandal, one exhibit stood out as a rare success: “High Street of 1776.” Organized by the Women’s Committee of the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association, the street reproduced the look of High Street (present-day Market Street) as it was around the time of the Revolution. Visitors strolled through the streets of replica homes, shops, and other structures, surrounded by docents in period costume. To cover a portion of the expense, the Women’s Committee secured the participation of local businesses and groups (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution), to sponsor a building and furnish its interior. The overall effect was as desired, and word-of-mouth publicity was good: to the extent that anyone flocked to the Exposition, they flocked to High Street.

After the close of the Sesquicentennial Exposition, the Women’s Committee was still riding high on their success. They parlayed that enthusiasm into forming the Committee of 1926, which was composed of many members from the dissolved Women’s Committee. The Committee of 1926 accepted stewardship of Strawberry Mansion, owned by the City of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission. They furnished and refurbished the historic property, turning into a museum, and continue to operate Strawberry Mansion to this day. Strawberry Mansion is the repository for several archival collections, including the records of the Women’s Committee, the Committee of 1926, and even a tidy number of John Lukens letters (Surveyor-General of Pennsylvania from 1961-1989).

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