Feature of the Week: Cameras for the Masses, Kodak & the snapshot

Taking photographs is like second nature to us now; we can snap a quick shot on our computers, laptops, cell phones, and with increasingly small and inexpensive digital cameras.  It’s cheaper and easier than ever before to preserve special moments and with no film or processing to worry about anymore, every moment can be documented and remembered. How many photos did you take on your last holiday?

An early point and shoot camera from the Historical Camera Collection at Ryerson University Library Archives and Special Collections

It’s difficult for us to imagine a time when most people could only have photos taken at a professional studio. In the 19th century, amateur photography was time consuming, often dangerous, and always very expensive.  Some images were taken directly on metal or glass and only one copy could be had.  Photographic “film” that allowed copies consisted of glass plates or paper soaked in chemicals.

When the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the first personal use camera in 1888, it was the beginning of the amateur snap shot.  The Kodak Camera cost about $25 (that may not sound like much, but that would be about $550 today) and came pre-loaded with 100 shots.  When the film was done, the customer packaged up the camera and sent it back to the Kodak Company in Rochester, NY for developing.  The pictures were mailed back, along with a newly loaded camera for the price of $10 (about $235 now).  Kodak had made photographs easier, but they were still expensive.  To really make money, and make sure the Kodak name was in every home, they had to make it cheaper.

The “Baby Brownie” (1934-1941) from the Historical Camera Collection at Ryerson University Library Archives and Special Collections

A brilliant entrepreneur, George Eastman challenged his designers to come up with the cheapest camera possible; something that was economical to make and easy to use.  The Brownie Camera was born.  First sold in 1900, the Brownie cost $1.00 (less than $25 today) and was a simple box design with few moving parts.  Ads claimed “Any school-boy or girl can make good pictures with one of Eastman Kodak Company’s Brownie Cameras!”  With a product cheap and sturdy enough for a child to use, Kodak aimed it’s marketing campaigns at kids, opening “Brownie Camera Clubs of America” and enticing budding photographers to get snap happy.  Nearly 250,000 of the first Brownies were manufactured.  The Brownie evolved over the years, becoming sturdier, smaller and eventually including flash.

The Brownie Hawkeye camera (c. 1949-1951) from the Historical Camera Collection at the Ryerson Library Archives and Special Collections

Ryerson Library Special Collections holds an extensive Heritage Camera Collection, including many popular models Kodak cameras.  Make an appointment (specialcollections@ryerson.ca) or drop by the fourth floor to have a look!

The Brownie Flash camera (1946-1954) from the Historical Camera Collection at the Ryerson Library Archives and Special Collections

For more information on the history of the camera, check out these Ryeron Library Resources:

Camera : a history of photography from daguerreotype to digital / Todd Gustavson. Publisher New York : Sterling Pub., 2009. http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1933405~S0

History of Kodak cameras. Publisher Rochester, N.Y. : Photographic Products Group, Eastman Kodak Co., / 1987. http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1812462~S0

The art of the American snapshot, 1888-1978 : from the collection of Robert E. Jackson / Sarah Greenough and Diane Waggoner ; with Sarah Kennel and Matthew S. Witkovsky. Publisher Washington [D.C.] : National Gallery of Art ; Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2007. http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1780308~S0

Sources:

Kodak. “The Brownie @ 100 : A Celebration.” Kodak. N.p., n.d.  http://www.kodak.com/US/en/corp/features/brownieCam/ Accessed 16 Feb. 2011.

Kodak. “Building the Foundation, Kodak”Kodak. N.p., n.d. http://www.kodak.com/ek/US/en/Our_Company/History_of_Kodak/Building_the_Foundation.htm Accessed Feb. 16 2011.

2 thoughts on “Feature of the Week: Cameras for the Masses, Kodak & the snapshot

  1. Great summary of the early beginnings of point and shoot photography! I have a small collection of Brownie’s at home and have had fun experimenting with loading modern film into them to see what kinds of images I can make. Have Special Collections staff been able to test out any of the still functioning models you have or would this be discouraged in the interest of preservation?

    • Most of the cameras appear to be in working order but we have not taken any for test drives. (Except one Polaroid that still had film in it at the time of donation. We wanted to see if the film was still good – it wasn’t.)
      The early box Brownies are missing lenses and the films are hard to come by; otherwise they could potentially be used again. Some duplicates from the collection were moved to the graduate teaching collection for the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management MA program. Contact the Mira Godard Study Centre for more information: http://imagearts.ryerson.ca/mgsc/

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