Online collection opens a wide window on Milwaukee’s Polish past

This campaign poster from 1920 hints at Milwaukee's early Socialist hitory.

This campaign poster from 1920 hints at Milwaukee’s early Socialist history.

Just in time for Polish Fest – June 13-15 – the UWM Libraries are opening up historic Polish Milwaukee to the world.

“Milwaukee Polonia,” a digital collection of nearly 32,000 historic photographs of the city’s Polish-American community, is now online at The collection will also be the subject of a large-screen exhibition in the cultural activities tent at Polish Fest.

An iconic "Polish Flat." The Miwlaukee Poles were known for adding value to their homes by jacking them up and adding a new lower floor.

An iconic “Polish Flat.” The Milwaukee Poles were known for adding value to their homes by jacking them up and adding a new lower floor.

“This collection is the largest we know of documenting the Polish-American community,” says Michael Doylen, assistant director and head of archives at the UWM Libraries. The collection features the photography of Roman B. J. Kwasniewski, who lived and worked in Milwaukee’s South Side Polish community, Polonia, from1910 through the ‘40s. Photographs of this time period, Doylen says, capture Polonia at its most cohesive.

“Milwaukee has one of the oldest and largest Polish communities in America,” says Doylen. Close-knit families lived in predominately Polish neighborhoods, attended Catholic churches and schools in the area and spoke Polish at home and out in the community.

In addition to thousands of formal photographs of weddings, First Communion celebrations, confirmations and graduations, Kwasniewski took his camera out into the community to photograph street scenes, buildings, parks, businesses, manufacturers, sports teams and fraternal societies.  “Those candid photos offer another perspective of the community,” says Doylen.

The collection was donated to UWM in 1979 and opened for research in 1991, but this is the first time scholars and the public will be able to view it from anywhere in the world.

The UWM Libraries started a project in 2010 to make the collection more accessible. “It is one of our flagship collections,” says Doylen, “so we were really motivated to digitize it and share it with the world.”

A parade float entered by Kuryer Polski, a Polish--language newspaper.

A parade float entered by Kuryer Polski, a Polish–language newspaper.

Most of the photos were in the form of glass negatives. “They were heavy, fragile and difficult for the public to access,” says Doylen. In spite of that, photos from the collection have been featured in many books on Milwaukee and America’s Polish communities, including the “Encyclopedia of Polish America.”

Individuals researching genealogy have also found the collection useful, and will find it even more so now that it’s digitized and searchable by names. “It’s really splendid for family histories,” says Doylen.

Because so many of the negatives were a standard size (5×7) and format, Ann Hanlon, the head of digital collections and the “Kwas” student team, were able to digitally capture the photos quickly. Jim Lowrey, assistant director of libraries, developed a “rail system” that allowed a three-person team to remove the negatives from their envelopes, photograph them using a stationary Nikon D800 camera mounted over a light box, then rewrap and return them to the physical archives.

Part of a portait of a graduating class of St. Josaphat school located not far from Kwasniewski's Lincoln Avenue studio.

Portion  of   graduation portrait of students at  St. Josaphat school, located not far from Kwasniewski’s Lincoln Avenue studio.

‘This process is very creative, and hasn’t been used before,” says Hanlon. “It was incredibly efficient.”

The online collection is organized by names, places and topics. There are numerous photos of schools, classes, nuns and priests, but also photos of manufacturing firms, workers, and even funerals. With a “history pin” feature, users will be able to see both past and present views of the same places.

Because Kwasniewski kept meticulous business records, the project team members have been able to fill in historical details about the photos, and integrate an existing database of information into the online archive. The staff also added maps and information about specific landmarks such as the Basilica of St. Josaphat, the Modjeska Theatre and Kosciuszko Park.

With contributions from Professor of History Neal Pease and Professor Emeritus of Political Science Donald Pienkos, and others in the community, the online collection was able to include additional articles about topics such as immigration, Catholicism and education in the Polish community.

Well-known Milwaukee historian John Gurda contributed the introduction he wrote for a 2003 book about the photos, “Illuminating the Particular: Photographs of Milwaukee’s Polish South Side,” published in 2003 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The photos also include a “comments” section, allowing readers to add more information and personal anecdotes.