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Joseph J. Pennell Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Collection Profile

The Kansas Collection, housed at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas (KU), is home to more than 30,000 glass plate negatives that represent the life work of Joseph J. Pennell, a successful commercial studio photographer who worked in Junction City, Kansas, from the early 1890s to the early 1920s. It provides a comprehensive view of life in a moderately-sized midwestern army-post town on the Great Plains at the turn of the last century.

The Pennell Collection, compelling because of its scope, depth, and the very high quality of Pennell's photographic skill, provides the researcher with an opportunity to view life at a time of great change in the United States. Included in the collection, in addition to many studio portraits of residents of the town and officers and enlisted men from Fort Riley, are images documenting businesses, from laundries to brothels and saloons; military life at Fort Riley, including examples of the kinds of training provided for the US Cavalry; and the town's and post's social life and customs, from weddings to funerals. The photographs provide important documentation of the African-American experience in mid-America during this time period.

The University of Kansas acquired the collection of glass plate negatives, along with 10 ledgers of business records, in 1950. Pennell's novelist son, Joseph Stanley Pennell, was persuaded to donate them to the university by Robert Taft, a KU faculty member. Taft culled what he judged the most significant images, printed them, and prepared a traveling exhibition, which generated a great deal of interest, especially in Kansas. In 1983, the University of Kansas Libraries gained funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve and provide increased intellectual access to the collection.

Today, the Pennell Collection is recognized as an important source for researchers in many fields, especially history of the American West, the US Army, the changing role of women, and the African-American experience. All who are interested in learning more about the period following the end of the western frontier will find much here to discover. The collection often is used to teach students about the use of photographs as primary sources, and hundreds of KU students interact with the collections each year.

Publishers have used images from the collection in many books about American life. Documentary features created by Ken Burns on baseball and the American West also have included Pennell images. The Pennell Collection has been at once a source for a war exhibition mounted at the Corcoran Gallery and a source for saloon images used in the opening title screen for the television show Cheers!

A 1983 exhibition of Pennell prints, "Frozen in Time," curated by Thomas Southall and funded by the Mid-America Arts Alliance, traveled throughout the Midwest. The collection was the subject of the well-received scholarly book Our Town on the Plains (2000) by James R. Shortridge, a KU professor of geography, with a long essay by John Pultz, curator of photography at KU's Spencer Museum of Art and a KU professor of art history.

Collection Profile and Overview: Sheryl K. Williams
Illustrations: Robert L. Hickerson (glass plate)/University of Kansas Libraries

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