Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Snapshot: The Kodak Brownie

 
Advertisement for Kodak Model No 1 (1888)
George Eastman circa 1890

No man did more to bring photography to ordinary people than did George Eastman (1854-1932). Eastman, who had two sisters, was born into a successful family on a small farm in upstate New York. When his father’s health began to fail the family moved to Rochester, NY. His father would die in 1862 when young George was eight and his mother was forced to take in boarders in order to make ends meet.

Among those boarders would be the Henry Strong family. Strong would become and remain a life-long friend and business partner of Eastman (he served as president of Eastman Kodak from its inception until his death in 1919). As for George, he would begin working full time at age 14 as an office boy (his workweek was 10 hours per day, six days per week at $3 per week). Eastman was a smart and diligent young man who was steadily advancing in the work world.

At seventeen, he began work for a Rochester insurance company for a salary of $41 per month plus the $8 per month he earned as a volunteer fireman, and by age 20 he was making $700 per year as a clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank. A year later he received a promotion to a position at a salary of $1,000 per year, which would be fine salary at the time for a middle-aged married man with.a family. It must have seemed a princely sum for the 20-year old bachelor.

In 1877, Eastman bought a camera and took up photography as a hobby. Photography at that time was neither an inexpensive nor a quick and easy hobby to take up. His first photography “kit” was of the collodion or wet plate process and cost $50. The kit included a large, heavy camera, a tripod, a plate holder for photographic plates, a tent which would serve as a darkroom, a nitrate bath, and several bottles of various chemicals. In order to take a photograph with his kit, he needed to be in darkroom tent (closed) and perform the following steps; coat a glass plate with a thin solution of egg white, then lay an emulsion of gun cotton and alcohol mixed with bromide salts, when the emulsion was set but still moist dip the plate in a solution of nitrate of silver and shield it from light as he put it in the camera. Eastman thought there had to be an easier way to prepare to take photographs. He then took it upon himself to find that way.

And pursue it he did. Although he had no training in chemistry, he read photography journals, contacted professional photographers and picked their brains, and experimented endlessly in the lab he set up for that purpose (he worked in the lab from the time he got off work each day until breakfast the following morning on a daily basis). Two years later he had invented an emulsion that enabled exposures to be made with a dry plate and had further designed a machine to coat the plates in quantity and had set up a business selling the plates (the Eastman Dry Plate Company) and obtained patents in both the United States and England (which was the photographic capital of the world at the time). Of course Eastman was far from the only one pursuing better photographic methods. Among the others were two brothers, David and Peter Houston of Cambria, Wisconsin who had developed and patented roll film and a roll film holder which was eventually licensed to Eastman’s company.

Patent Drawings for the Kodak Model No 1 (1888)

Even with the roll film license, the Eastman company continued to experiment and make improvements with roll film and the roll film process. In 1888, Eastman would bring a product to market that would revolutionize photography. That product was a roll film camera Eastman called the Kodak Model No. 1. How he came up with the name Kodak is not entirely clear. He said he liked the letter K, it sounded strong and he also thought that the word would be pronounced the same in every language (whether that’s the case I know not). The small camera fit in a cardboard box(3-1/4″ x 3-3/4″ X 6-1/2″ in length) had an imitation leather finish and nickel fittings. As for the camera itself, the 57 mm lens was centered on one face along the longitudinal axis, there was no viewfinder – a V notched into the case indicated the direction to aim the camera, the lever to rewind and advance the film and a string pull to wind the barrel shutter to tension were located on the top of the box, and the lens was fixed-focus but it had a great depth of field which allowed for focused images from as near as several feet away. The camera came with a pre-loaded 100 exposure roll of film but had no exposure counter for which Kodak provided each camera owner with a Kodak Memorandum which provided a means by which the camera’s owner could keep track of the pictures she’s taken. When the roll was finished the owner would mail in the camera to Kodak and Kodak would develop the film which produced circular photos 2-1/2 inches in diameter, reload the camera with another 100 exposure roll and return the package within 10 days for 10 dollars.

The Kodak Model 1 was a success and can be said to have created the concept of the amateur photographer. In the first year, 13,000 people bought the Kodak; but, at a price of $25 it was still out of reach for many. Within a year or two the camera would be equipped with a viewfinder, transparent nitrocellulose film (a major breakthrough), an exposure counter and a lens that could be adjusted to several pre-set values. This process of continual refinement and improvement of its’ products on an annual basis would become standard operating procedure for the company. Although Eastman had little formal education, he saw the value in having technically trained employees and he hired college-trained chemists and engineers early on both to work on existing products but also to pursue research into technologies that did not yet exist so that Kodak could be the first there. Before discussing the Brownie I should note that the main designer for the Model No. 1 (and the Brownie as well) was Frank Brownell. Brownell, a Canadian by birth, had moved to upstate New York and was working as a cabinet maker when Eastman first contracted with him to make parts for a rollfilm holder.

On Left: Box, carrying case, camera, felt lens plug, manual, memorandum and viewfinder card. On Right: Sample Photo with Kodak Model No 1
Kodak Memorandum for recording photos taken
Photo of children wading at the beach with a Kodak Model No 1

In 1900 Eastman introduced the Kodak Brownie. Rarely in history has a product been both such a success (both immediate and long-term) and so impactful. The Brownie was a small, cheap (it sold for $1) box camera with a fixed-focus lens with a depth of field (f/14 aperture) such that pictures were in focus from several feet to infinity. The roll film for the camera, which produced 2-1/4″ square photos, was sold separately in six exposure rolls for a dime, while that six exposure roll would be developed by Kodak for 15 cents. In the first year, 150,000 Brownies were sold and the Brownie camera in one form or another was part of the Kodak product line for the better part of eight decades. Now anyone could afford a camera!

Kodak Brownie Camera with original packaging
Brownie Camera with parts clearly labeled

Regarding the Brownie moniker; it referred to the cartoon characters The Brownies created by Palmer Cox, which were popular at the time. And this gets me to the last item about Eastman Kodak I wanted to touch on – advertising. Although I think both the Kodak Model 1 (1888) and (especially) the Brownie would’ve been commercial successes without the aggressive and innovative marketing by Eastman because of the previously unknown need they satisfied to memorialize events by taking pictures, the Eastman advertising certainly didn’t hurt. The marketing for the 1888 Model 1 emphasized the ease of operation of the camera “You press the button – – – – – We do the rest.” The marketing also reminded people of the three simple steps involved with the Kodak – 1) turn the key (to wind the film), 2) pull the string (to set the shutter, and 3) press the button (to take the picture. Simple, right? With the Brownie that ease of operation aspect was still a part of the tale. However, the Brownie was also specifically advertised as something young children could easily and safely take part in as picture takers. That was part of the reason behind the Brownie name. And, finally from the beginning Eastman advertising featured women as picture takers. Oh, and other thing they attempted to make the work Kodak into a verb as well as a noun as in “Let the Children Kodak.”

Ad for First Brownie Camera
Kodak Ad circa 1910
Let the Children Kodak
Kodak Ad Australia
Kodak Ad Outdoorswoman
Kodak Ad At the Beach

For those who might be interested, pasted below is a short four and a half minute video showing the workings of the Kodak Brownie.

I think this 1969 song by the Kinks – “People Take Pictures of Each Other” is as good a way as any to end this post.

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  1. RightAngles Member

    He really changed the world. I recall reading somewhere, maybe in a book of quotations, that George Eastman’s last words were, “My work is done, why wait?”

    • #1
    • January 14, 2020, at 2:50 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  2. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    He really changed the world. I recall reading somewhere, maybe in a book of quotations, that George Eastman’s last words were, “My work is done, why wait?”

    Those apparently were his last words RA. However, those words were in the suicide note he left. The last couple years of his life he was apparently in great pain – spinal pain from some cause. He shot himself through the heart. In fact, his doctor had visited him earlier in the day and at the end of the visit, he asked the doctor to show him exactly where his heart was located.

    • #2
    • January 14, 2020, at 2:57 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  3. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    The Russian Imperial family were some of the earliest and most prolific photographers. One of the first things taken away from them when they were moved to Yekaterinburg were their cameras.

    The tsarevich Alexei with his camera:

    Grand Dutchess Anastasia takes a selfie:

    Photobombing

    • #3
    • January 14, 2020, at 3:24 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  4. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    I remember visiting Kodak in Rochester NY in the early 90s when they still had tens of thousands of employees working in a massive complex of buildings. I think most of them are gone now.

    • #4
    • January 14, 2020, at 3:24 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  5. Hoyacon Member

    Well done, tigerlily!

    • #5
    • January 14, 2020, at 3:37 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  6. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Well done, tigerlily!

    Thanks Hoya!

    • #6
    • January 14, 2020, at 3:43 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  7. Locke On Member

    By coincidence I’m working on a project indexing scans of our ancestral family photos. The early ones are all formal portraits – a dageurrotype, then lots of tintypes and later ‘cabinet’ style paper prints. A couple informal snapshots show up from 1889 into the 1890s, but in 1900 it’s like there was a switch thrown – after that 90+% are snapshots and the formal portraits and group shots the exception. A really remarkable rate of adoption.

    • #7
    • January 14, 2020, at 4:20 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  8. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Technicians at Kodak were the first to detect the world’s first nuclear blast at Los Alamos. Batches of Kodak x-ray film were rendered unusable after the test because the fall out had traveled all the way to the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana where packaging material for the film was produced. The whole fascinating story was recounted in Popular Mechanics.

    • #8
    • January 14, 2020, at 4:25 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  9. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    Eastman Kodak is a tragic story. They invented the digital camera and it killed the company. Their business model was based on film processing, which went away as the digital camera became popular. Peter Drucker, all of whose books I have read, used to begin his consultation with a new client by asking the client what business he was in. Many did not have the right answer.

    One of his great books is about non-profit companies. His example of a great successful non-profit was The Girl Scouts. He wrote that they were able to change their business model as women went to work. The original business model of the girl scouts was to keep mothers busy during the day. AS women began to work, they switched to the model of “quality time with your daughter.” It seems not to have survived the third wave of feminism but it worked for a couple of decades. Eastman Kodak did not have a plan for the second phase of their business.

    I once tried to hire Peter Drucker when he was at Claremont colleges. I was president of the county medical society in the 1980s and wondered if he could provide advice for our surviving managed care. His fee was $10,000 for one day, or one hour. We could not afford it.

    • #9
    • January 14, 2020, at 4:42 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  10. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Technicians at Kodak were the first to detect the world’s first nuclear blast at Los Alamos. Batches of Kodak x-ray film were rendered unusable after the test

    That, of course, is how radioactivity and x-ray were discovered. I have the story in my book.

    • #10
    • January 14, 2020, at 4:43 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Well done piece, Tigerlilly.

    I of course am partial to the Leica M series…

    …which would not have been possible without Eastman’s work on 35mm roll film.

    (that is not my camera, but I have one identical to it)

    • #11
    • January 14, 2020, at 6:27 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  12. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily

    Spin (View Comment):

    Well done piece, Tigerlilly.

    I of course am partial to the Leica M series…

    …which would not have been possible without Eastman’s work on 35mm roll film.

    (that is not my camera, but I have one identical to it)

    Thanks Spin.

    • #12
    • January 14, 2020, at 6:48 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):
    The Russian Imperial family were some of the earliest and most prolific photographers. One of the first things taken away from them when they were moved to Yekaterinburg were their cameras.

    The Czar also sponsored the work of Sergei Produkin-Gorskii, who had developed his own color photography method. These images are far more vivid than other early color photography work, and are really worth seeing. Some of them are here:

    https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/ethnic.html

    The process involved using color filters to create 3 black & white images from each color scene, then recombining them with 3 precisely-registered projectors. This was very difficult to do, but modern computer image processing makes it much easier.

    Lots more of his work here. Go to the bottom of the page for subject headings for the image categories.

     

     

    • #13
    • January 14, 2020, at 7:09 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  14. Locke On Member

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    I remember visiting Kodak in Rochester NY in the early 90s when they still had tens of thousands of employees working in a massive complex of buildings. I think most of them are gone now.

    In the late ’90s I had a consulting gig with Kodak through one of their futures / R&D groups, working on digital imaging product and business scenarios for the company. We produced a set of four product and service line visions, which were roundly ignored by the company, which seemed to be counting on its brand and distribution power to see it through. The group I was contracted with shut down not too long after.

    All of the scenarios were set about 10 years in the future – one of those sorta safe intervals where you don’t have to either build directly on current products or get too wacky on technology extrapolation. In the event, 10 years later all of the market and product scenarios had come true, including the most corrosive one, the beginning of credible imaging in mobile phones. Kodak was out of the film camera business, was making nine figure quarterly losses, and would be bankrupt and out of the film business entirely in a few more years.

    Rather ironic that the company died by the same sort of rapid technology shift that had put it into business in the first place, about a century earlier.

    • #14
    • January 14, 2020, at 8:50 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  15. James Lileks Contributor

    Great piece! For an example of the candids a 20-something lass Kodaked in North Dakota long, long ago, take a look here. I have my grandmother’s cameras, and the pictures she took. 

    • #15
    • January 14, 2020, at 10:13 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I love a great technological history, and this post hits the spot. To me photography is one of the 19th century’s early “miracle technologies”, along with railways and telegraphy. By the end of that century they’d have evolved into the first motion pictures, automobiles and radio. Thanks, Tigerlily.

    George Eastman didn’t invent photography, but he figured out best how to product-ize it, bringing its benefits to many more people. For that matter, Henry Ford didn’t invent cars, Walt Disney didn’t invent animated cartoons, and Steve Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer. 

    • #16
    • January 15, 2020, at 2:10 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  17. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I love a great technological history, and this post hits the spot. To me photography is one of the 19th century’s early “miracle technologies”, along with railways and telegraphy. By the end of that century they’d have evolved into the first motion pictures, automobiles and radio. Thanks, Tigerlily.

    Thanks Gary. Appreciate the kind words.

    George Eastman didn’t invent photography, but he figured out best how to product-ize it, bringing its benefits to many more people. For that matter, Henry Ford didn’t invent cars, Walt Disney didn’t invent animated cartoons, and Steve Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer.

    This is usually the case, isn’t it? The level of technology and (usually) scientific knowledge has to have reached this or that point before this or that device or product can come into existence usually as the result of a competition between a number of whip-smart and determined people hoping to get there first. I’m sure there have been inventions that, looking back, can be said to have come “out of the blue” with little help or insight from others, but I can’t think of any off-hand.

    • #17
    • January 15, 2020, at 3:12 AM PST
    • 1 like
  18. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    tigerlily (View Comment):
    . I’m sure there have been inventions that, looking back, can be said to have come “out of the blue” with little help or insight from others, but I can’t think of any off-hand.

    Xerox PARC was the source of so many, including Ethernet, laser printers and the GUI. Xerox, of course, appreciated none of it and told them to get back to work on copiers.

    • #18
    • January 15, 2020, at 6:19 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  19. Cal Lawton Member
    Cal Lawton Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I wonder how many government forms Mr. Eastman had to fill out in order to run his business? How many employees staffed the Compliance Department?

    • #19
    • January 15, 2020, at 6:59 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Great piece! For an example of the candids a 20-something lass Kodaked in North Dakota long, long ago, take a look here. I have my grandmother’s cameras, and the pictures she took.

    Thanks James. And I enjoyed (as always at your site) reading about Grandma’s Camera.

    • #20
    • January 15, 2020, at 7:53 AM PST
    • 1 like
  21. Spin Coolidge
    Spin Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Great piece! For an example of the candids a 20-something lass Kodaked in North Dakota long, long ago, take a look here. I have my grandmother’s cameras, and the pictures she took.

    Ha ha! lileks.com blocked by the corporate web filter. What a chump. 😎😜

    • #21
    • January 15, 2020, at 10:23 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Great post, thank you!

    • #22
    • January 15, 2020, at 11:09 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  23. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily

    iWe (View Comment):

    Great post, thank you!

    Thanks iWe!

    • #23
    • January 15, 2020, at 11:48 AM PST
    • Like
  24. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The camera for everybody? Twenty-five bucks in 1888 works out to about $720 in today’s money. I’m just sayin’… 

    • #24
    • January 17, 2020, at 4:34 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  25. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily

    Misthiocracy grudgingly (View Comment):

    The camera for everybody? Twenty-five bucks in 1888 works out to about $720 in today’s money. I’m just sayin’…

    Yeah…That’s why Kodak came out with the Brownie.

    • #25
    • January 17, 2020, at 5:55 AM PST
    • 3 likes