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parade photo

The Harold W. T. Purnell Photograph Collection

The Purnell Collection contains representations of a wide range of subjects and time periods that give an excellent view of Sussex County life. The collection has approximately 14,000 images and dates from about 1860 through 1963.


These photographs were collected by Harold W.T. Purnell (1896-1965), who was born and lived most of his life in Georgetown, Delaware. After taking over his father’s hardware store, he became a prominent merchant and civic leader. He was involved in many local and state organizations; most notably, he served as a state senator from 1938 to 1946 and was president pro tempore from 1942 to 1946. Deeply interested in Delaware history, he was president of the Sussex Historical and Archaeological Society and the Friends of John Dickinson Mansion, chairman of the Zwaanendael Museum, and a member of the State Archives Commission and the Delaware Society for the Preservation of Antiquities.

photo of tomatoes

Collection Details

Mr. Purnell’s love of history was also manifested by his collecting hobbies, especially his efforts to save historical photographs. These photos were collected in a number of ways. In addition to those that Mr. Purnell discovered or had given to him, he bought many from studios that went out of business. He also actively sought old photos from acquaintances and made copies to add to his collection. In 1978 the majority of the photograph collection was given to the Archives by his son, Lewis M. Purnell. In subsequent years, many more donations were made.