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Kathy Peiss

Kathy Peiss is the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History at Penn, where she teaches courses on modern American cultural history and the history of American sexuality, women, and gender.  Her research has examined the history of working women; working-class and interracial sexuality; leisure, style, and popular culture; the beauty industry in the U.S. and abroad; and libraries, information, and American cultural policy during World War II.  She is particularly interested in the ways that culture shapes the everyday lives and popular beliefs of Americans across time.

Peiss is the author of Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (1998), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and named one of Amazon's 1999 top ten books in Women's Studies.  Her book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style (2011), received the 2012 Millia Davenport Publication Award of the Costume Society of America.  Other publications include Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, co-edited with Christina Simmons (1989); Men and Women: A History of Gender, Costume, and Power, co-authored with Barbara Clark Smith in conjunction with a Smithsonian Institution exhibit (1989); Love Across the Color Line: The Letters of Alice Hanley to Channing Lewis, co-edited with Helen Horowitz (1996); Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality (2001); and articles in Daedalus, Library Trends, Business History Review, Enterprise and Society, Genders, American Literary History, and Social Problems.

Her latest book, Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe (Oxford University Press, 2020) explores the uses and meaning of print culture in a time of war and devastation. Originating in the hidden story of a family member, Information Hunters reveals the efforts of American librarians, scholars, and archivists to find and preserve books and documents for national security, military planning, and postwar reconstruction. Working with the military and intelligence agencies, they fostered new approaches to information, pushed for the internationalization of American book collections, and played key roles in the denazification and restitution of book collections after the war.

Peiss has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, NEH, ACLS, Smithsonian Institution, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.  She is a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and served on the Society’s Executive Board.  She has also lectured at the University of Sydney as a Fulbright Senior Specialist.  In addition to writing and teaching, she has served as a consultant to museums, archives, and public history projects, and appeared in the documentary films New York and Miss America.

At Penn, Peiss served as Chair of the History Department from 2008 to 2011. 

Articles by this Author

The origins of today’s vast intelligence apparatus can be traced in part to the forgotten efforts of librarians and archivists to gather information during World War II