The 1926 US Sesquicentennial and Its Official Medal

Posted on 9/10/2019

“The Flop Heard ’Round the World”: Read about the optimistic expectations and painful failure of the Sesquicentennial Exposition held in Philadelphia, along with the official medal produced there.

The 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition held in Philadelphia commemorated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the United States and signing of the Declaration of Independence. The expo consisted of five exhibition palaces and 72 other buildings painted with bright, rainbow colors. A giant, 80-foot tall replica of the Liberty bell—the “Luminous Liberty Bell”—stood at the entrance and was the “largest electrical structure ever”. It was lighted with 26,000 fifteen-watt light bulbs as a part of the extravagant lighting scheme to make the buildings glow at night.

The Luminous Liberty Bell was probably one of the grandest exposition entrances ever conceived.
Click images to enlarge.

The fairgrounds contained some of the newest inventions of the century, with pyramidal style architecture,
sound amplification, displays of the new diesel engines, radios, electric refrigeration, and “talking” motion pictures.
Click images to enlarge.

1926 Sesqui-Centennial Expo Administration Building
Click images to enlarge.

The preparation efforts were led by John Wanamaker, the famous department store mogul, who was the only living member of the previous 1876 Centennial Expo’s Finance Committee. Wanamaker’s advertising tokens were emblazoned with patriotic emblems, and his silver anniversary piece featured Independence Hall, making it popular with collectors today. When he died of a heart attack in 1922, preparation efforts became scrambled, and sent the fair on a downward spiral from which it would not recover. Sadly, the fair was riddled with corruption and controversy, the city became knee-deep in debt, and what was supposed to be a memorable event, was forgotten.

HK-453: An example of the medal in gilt-bronze.
Click images to enlarge.

With most International Expositions, an official medal was struck on the fairgrounds by the US Mint. The medal for this exhibition features a bust of Washington, surrounded by 13 stars. Around is the legend SESQUICENTENNIAL-INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION. The unusually artistic reverse features Lady Liberty holding a torch aligned with the sun, riding Pegasus, in flight above the clouds.

HK-454: The nickel examples are strongly magnetic and didn't strike up very well in the center.
This example graded NGC MS 63.
Click images to enlarge.

The So Called Dollars reference by Harold E. Hibler and Charles V. Kappen should be listed as follows:

HK-451: Bronze (these are incorrectly listed as “copper”)
HK-452: Bronze (But different dies, with antiqued surfaces)
HK-453: Gilt-bronze (incorrectly called brass)
HK-454: Nickel

HK-451 (top) and HK-452 (bottom) compared. It is noted that HK-452
is in higher relief on both sides. The latter example graded NGC MS 65.
Click images to enlarge.

The mint wasn’t able to deliver the bronze blanks for the medal, so pure nickel ones were acquired from the International Nickel Company. The electronic press set up inside the Government building wasn’t able to fully strike these nickel blanks, and the dies quickly wore out. Lower relief dies were made, and the mint began annealing the blanks to soften them. Ten thousand bronze blanks were delivered on September 20, and 12,000 more were delivered on October 2. In all, 6 sets of dies were used for the medals. William Swoger’s reference National Commemorative Medals of the United States of America confirms that HK-451 was actually bronze, and HK-453 was actually gold-plated bronze.

The medal was designed by Albin Polasek, whose name appears on the reverse. Polasek, a Czech-American, had a shining career as a sculptor in his own right, and was employed at Medallic Art Company in New York City. While the obverse of the medal is rather poorly executed, the reverse design provides an artistic draw for collectors. The antiqued bronze piece produced from different dies is by far the rarest, with fewer than five being certified by NGC. These were higher relief from the rest, and were likely struck by the Medallic Art Company after the expo closed. Likewise, the nickel examples are less common than the bronze and brass pieces.

In the end, the Exposition became known as the “Flop Heard ‘Round the World.” There was a great deal of trouble securing the funds required to put the fair on. The lowest construction bid was $374,000 above the city’s estimate. The newly elected mayor of Philadelphia, William Freeland Kendrick rejected plans to have the fair in Fairmount Park like the last expo, in favor of a southern site in the city that was basically a swamp area that had to be drained and filled in. When torrential rainstorms struck on opening day, it left the fairgrounds in a sea of mud, and washed out much of the beautiful landscaping that had just been installed.

Sesqui-Centennial Muncipal Stadium
Click images to enlarge.

The fairgrounds were incomplete by opening day, and only 250 visitors showed up in the first hour. Only 20,0000 people were in attendance for the opening ceremonies—with 5,000 of them members of the Sesquicentennial Chorus—in the Municipal Stadium which seated 100,000. Attendance was shabby, partly because it rained 107 out of the 184 days the exposition was in operation. The fair ran at a deficit of $5,000 per day, which Mayor Kendrick later brushed aside saying: “Although we are faced with a deficit of $4,750,000, I am not discouraged. In fact, I do not know what the word means.”

This highlights the importance of keeping the principles of America’s grand foundation in mind, and how important celebrations of its heritage are. While attendance improved throughout the duration of the fair, it wasn’t enough to pay off the city’s debts incurred by the fair. By the time it closed, 400 creditors were owed about $5.8 million, which took the city three years to pay off. Collectors do, however, get the chance to own one of the few surviving relics of the fair in the form of a uniquely executed medal.

A souvenir miniature Liberty Bell sold at the expo. It's cast in nearly pure lead and is about 8 cm high, 7 cm wide, and 4 cm deep.
Click images to enlarge.

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