In 1900, the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the humble Brownie camera and a revolution began.
This small, simple box launched a new industry and forever changed the way we communicate. Photojournalism, the motion picture industry, medical x-rays, satellite imaging, the internet – every technology we use to communicate with pictures can trace its ancestry to that first black box.
Frank A Brownell designed and manufactured the first Brownie. It was a simple, black, rectangular box covered in imitation leather with nickeled fittings. Low priced, it was a simple point-and-shoot, hand-held camera which was perfect for children to use. To take a “snapshot” all you had to do was hold the camera at waist height, aim, and turn a switch.
In its advertising campaign Kodak claimed the Brownie camera was “so simple they can easily be operated by any school boy or girl”. Though simple enough for even children to use, a 44 page instruction booklet accompanied every Brownie camera.
The Brownie camera was very affordable, selling for $1 each. Plus, for only 15 cents, a Brownie camera owner could buy a six-exposure film cartridge that could be loaded in daylight.
Kodak heavily marketed the Brownie camera to children. In advertisements, the camera was accompanied by the very popular Brownie characters, elf-life creatures created by children’s author and illustrator Palmer Cox who was regarded as the Walt Disney of his day. His Brownie characters were as well known in the 1880s as Mickey Mouse is today.
Children under the age of 16 were also encouraged to join the Brownie Camera Club, a free club in which they could earn prizes for good photos and receive a photographic art brochure.
The success of the Brownie camera was enormous. In the first year, 150,000 cameras were shipped – three times the previous record.
The Brownies were in production for 70 very successful years. Over that time, there were 125 Brownie camera models, some minor name changes – No 1 Brownie, No 2 Brownie, No 3 Brownie – and some major name changes – Brownie Target, Beau Brownie, Brownie Hawkeye. There were also some minor physical changes to the revolutionary Brownie – usually black, they sometimes came in other colours, usually palm-size but sometimes larger. More noticeable physical changes included some Brownies with folding bellows and some with flash capability.
Seventy years, millions of cameras, a legacy for generations.
With a handheld Brownie camera anyone could start taking pictures. Photography became popular and spontaneous. Long-remembered family occasions and treasured everyday events were all captured equally. For some, these photos documented their family history to be shared with the generations that followed.
Today we remember the amazing Brownie camera or you might have called them the Box Brownie. Did you even sign up as a member of the Brownie Camera Club? Share your stories in the comments.