Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the introduction of Brownie cameras, Eastman Kodak became the first company to exploit the mass-market potential of photography by making it accessible to almost everyone.

Summary of Event

In early February of 1900, the first shipments of a new small box camera called the Brownie reached Kodak dealers in the United States and Great Britain. Eager to put photography within the reach of everyone, George Eastman had directed Frank Brownell to design a small camera that could be inexpensively manufactured but still take good photographs. Advertisements for the new Brownie camera proclaimed that everyone—even children—could take good pictures with it. The Brownie was aimed directly at the children’s market, a fact indicated by its packaging, which was decorated with drawings of imaginary elves called “Brownies” created by the Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox Cox, Palmer . Moreover, the camera cost only one dollar. Inventions;cameras Brownie cameras Eastman, George Photography;Brownie cameras Eastman Kodak Company Film;and cameras[Cameras] [kw]Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras (Feb., 1900) [kw]Introduces Brownie Cameras, Kodak (Feb., 1900) [kw]Brownie Cameras, Kodak Introduces (Feb., 1900) [kw]Cameras, Kodak Introduces Brownie (Feb., 1900) Inventions;cameras Brownie cameras Eastman, George Photography;Brownie cameras Eastman Kodak Company Film;and cameras[Cameras] [g]United States;Feb., 1900: Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras[6470] [c]Photography;Feb., 1900: Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras[6470] [c]Inventions;Feb., 1900: Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras[6470] [c]Manufacturing;Feb., 1900: Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras[6470] [c]Marketing and advertising;Feb., 1900: Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras[6470] Brownell, Frank A. Walker, William H.

The Brownie was made of jute board and wood, with a hinged back fastened by a sliding catch. It had an inexpensive two-piece glass Glass;camera lenses lens and a simple rotary shutter that allowed both timed and instantaneous exposures to be made. With a lens aperture of approximately f/14 and a shutter speed of approximately 1/50 of a second, the Brownie was certainly capable of taking acceptable snapshots. It had no viewfinder, but a clip-on reflecting viewfinder was an option. The cameras came loaded with six-exposure rolls of Kodak film that produced square negatives 2.5 inches on a side. This film could be developed, printed, and mounted for forty cents per roll, and new rolls could be purchased for fifteen cents each.

Eastman’s first career choice had been banking, but when he failed to receive a promotion that he thought he deserved, he decided to devote himself to his hobby, photography. Having worked with the complicated wet-plate process of photography, he knew why few amateurs took up photography. The whole process, from plate preparation to printing, was expensive, cumbersome, and time-consuming. Even so, he had already begun to think about the commercial possibilities of photography. After reading about British experiments with dry-plate technology, he set up a small chemical laboratory and came up with a process of his own. The Eastman Dry Plate Company that he then founded became one of the most successful producers of gelatin dry plates.

Dry-plate photography had attracted more amateurs, but it was still a complicated and expensive hobby. Eastman realized that the number of photographers would have to increase considerably if the market for cameras and supplies were to grow significantly. During the early 1880’s, he began formulating the policies that would make the Eastman Kodak Company successful in years to come: mass production, low prices, foreign and domestic distribution, and marketing through extensive advertising and by demonstration.

In his efforts to expand the amateur photography market, Eastman first tackled the problem of glass-plate Glass;photographic negatives negatives, which were heavy, fragile, and expensive to make. By 1884, his experiments with paper negatives had been successful enough that he changed the name of his company to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. Because flexible roll film needed some devices to hold it flat in camera focal planes, Eastman collaborated with William Walker Walker, William H. to develop the Eastman-Walker roll-holder.

Eastman’s pioneering manufacture and use of roll films led to the appearance on the market during the 1880’s of a wide array of handheld cameras made by several different companies. Such cameras were called detective cameras because they were small and could be used surreptitiously. The most famous of these, introduced by Eastman in 1888, was named the Kodak—a word of no particularly meaning that he invented to be terse, distinctive, and easily pronounced in any language. This camera’s simplicity of operation was appealing to the general public and stimulated the growth of amateur photography.

The Kodak camera was a box about seven inches long and four inches wide, with a one-speed shutter and a fixed-focus lens that produced reasonably sharp pictures. It came loaded with enough roll film to make one hundred exposures. The camera’s initial price of twenty-five dollars included the cost of processing the first roll of film. The camera also came with a leather case and strap. After exposing a roll of film, a camera owner mailed the entire camera, unopened, to the company plant in Rochester, New York, where the developing and printing were done. For an additional ten dollars, the camera was reloaded and sent back to the customer.

The Kodak was advertised in mass-market publications, rather than in specialized photographic journals, with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” With his introduction of a camera that was easy to use and a service that eliminated the need to know anything about processing negatives, Eastman revolutionized the photographic market. Thousands of people no longer depended upon professional photographers for their portraits but instead learned to make their own. In 1892, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company became the Eastman Kodak Company, and by the mid-1890’s, 100,000 Kodak cameras had been manufactured and sold, half of them in Europe by Kodak Limited.

After popularizing photography with the first Kodak, in 1900 Eastman turned his attention to the children’s market with the introduction of the Brownie. The first five thousand cameras sent to dealers were sold immediately; by the end of the following year, almost one-quarter of a million had been sold. The Kodak Company organized Brownie camera clubs and held competitions specifically for young photographers. The Brownie came with an instruction booklet that gave children simple directions for taking successful pictures, and “The Brownie Boy,” an appealing youngster who loved photography, became a standard feature of Kodak’s advertisements.

Eastman followed the success of the first Brownie by introducing several additional models between 1901 and 1917. Each elaborated on the original design. These Brownie box cameras were on the market until the early 1930’s, and their success inspired other companies to manufacture box cameras of their own. In 1906, for example, the Ansco company produced the Buster Brown camera in three sizes that corresponded to Kodak’s Brownie camera range; in 1910 and 1914, Ansco made three additional versions. The Seneca company’s Scout box camera, in three sizes, appeared in 1913, and Sears Roebuck’s Kewpie cameras, in five sizes, reached the market in 1916. In Great Britain, Houghtons introduced its first Scout camera in 1901, followed by another series of four box cameras in 1910 sold under the Ensign trademark. Other British manufacturers of box cameras included the James Sinclair company, with its Traveller Una of 1909, and the Thornton-Pickard company, with a Filma camera marketed in four sizes in 1912.

After World War I, several series of box cameras were manufactured in Germany by companies that had formerly concentrated on more advanced and expensive cameras. The success of box cameras in other countries, led by Kodak’s Brownie, undoubtedly prompted this trend in the German photographic industry. The Ernemann Film K series of cameras in three sizes, introduced in 1919, and the all-metal Trapp Little Wonder of 1922 are examples of popular German box cameras.

During the early 1920’s, camera manufacturers began making box-camera bodies from metal rather than wood and cardboard. Machine-formed metal was both less expensive and more durable than the traditional handworked materials. In 1924, Kodak’s two most popular Brownie sizes appeared with aluminum bodies.

In 1928, Kodak Limited of England added two important new features to the Brownie—a built-in portrait lens, which could be brought in front of the taking lens by pressing a lever, and camera bodies in a range of seven different fashion colors. The Beau Brownie cameras, made in 1930, were the most popular of all the colored box cameras. The work of Walter Dorwin Teague, a leading American designer, these cameras had an art deco geometric pattern on the front panel, which was enameled in a color matching the leatherette covering of the camera body. Several other companies, including Ansco, again followed Kodak’s lead and introduced their own lines of colored cameras.

During the 1930’s, several new box cameras with interesting features appeared, many manufactured by leading film companies. In France, Lumiere advertised a series of box cameras—the Luxbox, Scoutbox, and Lumibox—that ranged from a basic fixed-lens camera to one with an adjustable lens and shutter. In 1933, the German Agfa company restyled its entire range of box cameras, and in 1939, the Italian Ferrania company entered the market with box cameras in two sizes. In 1932, Kodak redesigned its Brownie series to use the new 620 roll film, which it had just introduced. This film and the new Six-20 Brownies inspired other companies to experiment with variations of their own; some box cameras, such as the Certo Double-box, the Coronet Every Distance, and the Ensign E-20 cameras, offered a choice of two picture formats.

Another new trend in cameras was a move toward smaller-format models using standard 127 roll film. In 1934, Kodak marketed the small Baby Brownie. Designed by Teague and made from molded black plastic, this little camera with a folding viewfinder sold for only one dollar—the same price as the original Brownie in 1900. The first Kodak camera made of molded plastic, the Baby Brownie heralded a move toward the use of plastics in camera manufacture. Soon many others, such as the Altissa series of box cameras and the Voigtlander Brilliant V/6 camera, were being made from this new material.

By the late 1930’s, flashbulbs had replaced flash powder for taking pictures in low light. Once again, the Eastman Kodak Company led the way in introducing this new technology as an option on its inexpensive box cameras. The Falcon Press-Flash, marketed in 1939, was the first mass-produced camera to have flash synchronization and was followed the next year by the Six-20 Flash Brownie, which had a detachable flash gun. During the early 1940’s, other companies, such as Agfa-Ansco, introduced similar features on their own box cameras.

After World War II, box cameras evolved into eye-level cameras, making them more convenient to carry and use. Many amateur photographers, however, still had trouble handling paper-backed roll film and were taking their cameras back to dealers to be unloaded and reloaded. Kodak therefore developed a new system of film loading, using Kodapak cartridges, which could be mass-produced with a high degree of accuracy by precision plastic-molding techniques. To load cameras, users simply opened the camera backs and inserted film cartridges. This new film was introduced in 1963, along with a series of Instamatic cameras designed for their use. Both the film cartridges and the cameras were immediately successful.

The popularity of film cartridges ended the long history of simple and inexpensive roll film cameras. The last English Brownie was made in 1967, and the last American series of Brownies was discontinued in 1970. Eastman’s original marketing strategy of simplifying photography in order to increase the demand for cameras and film continued, however, with the public’s acceptance of cartridge-loading cameras such as the Instamatic.


From his company’s beginning, Eastman recognized that there were two kinds of photographers other than professionals. The first, he declared, were the true amateurs who devoted time enough to acquire skill in the complex film processing systems of the day. The second were those who merely wanted personal pictures or memorabilia of their everyday lives, families, and travels. The second class, he observed, outnumbered the first by almost ten to one. Thus, it was to this second kind of amateur photographer that Eastman appealed, both with his first cameras and with his advertising slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Eastman did much more than simply invent cameras and films; he invented a system and then developed the means for supporting it. This is essentially what the Eastman Kodak Company continued to accomplish with the series of Instamatics and other descendants of the original Brownie. During the decade between 1963 and 1973, for example, approximately sixty million Instamatics were sold throughout the world.

The research, manufacturing, and marketing activities of the Eastman Kodak Company have been so complex and varied that no one would suggest that the company’s prosperity rests solely on the success of its line of inexpensive cameras and cartridge films, although these have continued to be important to the company. Like Kodak, however, most large companies in the photographic industry have expanded their research to satisfy ever-growing demands from amateurs. The amateurism that George Eastman recognized and encouraged at the beginning of the twentieth century still flourishes a century later, when the newest trend in amateur photography was digital cameras, which require no film at all.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brayer, Elizabeth. George Eastman: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. First full-length, scholarly biography of the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Brian. Kodak Cameras: The First Hundred Years. Cincinnati, Ohio: Seven Hills Books, 1988. Detailed catalog of Kodak camera models by the former curator of the Kodak Museum in England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Douglas. The Story of Kodak. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990. This first book to present the complete story of the Eastman Kodak Company emphasizes the contributions that Kodak has made to science, art, and popular culture. The author had unlimited access to the company archives as well as the opportunity to interview Kodak’s leading researchers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cork, Richard. “The End of Art.” New Statesman 130, no. 4546 (July 16, 2001): 44. Brief survey of the early history of photography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eder, Josef Maria. History of Photography. Translated by Edward Epstean. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945. This history of the early developments in photography draws on many European sources not available to American writers. Includes a valuable account of Eastman’s initial experiments, inventions, and business practices. Technical discussions are easy to understand.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freund, Gisele. Photography and Society. Boston: David R. Godine, 1980. Survey of the history of photography that proceeds to a discussion of the ways in which artistic expression and social forms continually influence and reshape each other. Also discusses photography’s essential role in modern life and its indispensable position in both science and industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light: A History of Photography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. Detailed, clear, and easily readable history of photography that describes the influence of photography on science, culture, and art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKeown, James M., and Joan McKeown. Collectors Guide to Kodak Cameras. Grantsburg, Wis.: Centennial Photo Service, 1981. Useful but difficult-to-find guide for collectors of vintage cameras. Like most such guides, it is a trove of historical information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taft, Robert. Photography and the American Scene. New York: Dover, 1964. Traces the effects of photography on the social history of America and the effect of social life on the progress of photography. Includes a good account of Eastman’s early career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wade, John. A Short History of the Camera. Watford, England: Fountain Press, 1979. Year-by-year history of the development of camera technology and the various companies involved. Well illustrated, with photographs of most of the cameras discussed in the text. Recommended for readers with limited knowledge of how cameras actually work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Nancy Martha. Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Beautifully illustrated history of early Kodak advertisements that serves as a cultural history of amateur photography.

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