Allen, J. C. (1881-1976) | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections
John “J. C.” C. Allen was born in 1881. His mother died when he was a year and a half in age, and when he was six his father passed away. Before J.C.’s father died, he made arrangements for J.C. to live at the Indiana Soldier’s and Sailor’s Children’s Home. The Children’s Home operated a farm which gave J. C. his earliest agricultural training. He graduated from the Home in 1897 and took on a myriad of jobs. He started out working on a railroad crew, then coal miner, a farm hand, then as a telegraph operator. In 1904 he married Mary Abby Peavy and they later had a son, Chester, and a daughter, Martha. Later that year they attended the World’s Fair in St. Louis and purchased a portable Kodak camera for the trip. This is how J. C. Allen was bitten by the photography bug. Later that year he purchased a wooden box camera that used 5x 7 inch glass plates and found the clarity of the photographs to be superior to his other camera.
The married couple settled in on a farm along the Illinois-Indiana state line. Over time Allen developed proficiency in agronomy and livestock—the skills that led him to a position at Purdue in 1909. Allen later stated that he was hired by the Purdue College of Agriculture to work in livestock judging, animal nutrition, poultry and agronomy. According to John O. Allen, J. C.’s grandson, he found using photographs in judging livestock useful because you could easily compare animals and look for examples of conformation.
J. C. Allen’s hiring by Purdue just happened to coincide with the brisk expansion of the College of Agriculture. He was able to document the early activities of Ag Extension around the state. Purdue placed several of his photographs in Agricultural Experiment Station publications. His work expanded beyond the College of Agriculture to chronicling the activities of the entire University, including taking photographs of Amelia Earhart when she was a lecturer at Purdue in the 1930s.
Allen did not exclusively work for Purdue either, but also took photographs for his own personal business, J. C. Allen & Son. His photographs began appearing in publications such as Prairie Farmer, Breeder’s Gazette, and Farm Journal, as well as in books. Allen would not only travel the Midwest and take photographs, but also the entire country taking photographs of farm life. However, he always returned to West Lafayette.
In 1929 Chester Allen became the “Son” in J. C. Allen & Son. After Chester graduated with a B. S. in horticultural science from Purdue, he went to work in his father’s office and was also a freelance photographer/writer for magazines and newspapers. Chester’s son John joined the family business in 1967 after receiving his B. S. in agricultural economics from Purdue and a stint in the Navy.
J. C. retired in 1952, but still continued to take photographs for almost twenty-five more years. He passed away in 1976 at the age of 94. Chester worked until his death in 1996 at the age of 89. John has now become the custodian of the J. C. Allen & Son archive. The collection consists of over 77,000 subjects and covers all fifty states. J. C. Allen & Son materials are still in great demand today. Publications such as Country Woman, Reminisce, Draft Horse Journal, and Farm & Ranch Living often use their work. Many of the images are also used in displays and exhibits around the country.
In the 1970s J. C. Allen presented nearly 20,000 prints, negatives and glass plate negatives to Purdue. The collection was housed by the College of Agriculture until spring 2008 when it came to the Purdue Archives & Special Collections.