This is one of the most important cameras in the history of photography. Because it cost only $ 1 it made photography available to much more people.
Right from the first Kodak camera of 1888 the Eastman company had tried to make photography available for the masses. The first Kodak still cost $ 25, but it was very easy to use and quite small. The Pocket Kodak of 1895 cost $ 5, was even smaller and just as easy to use. It was a great succes. But $ 5 was still too expensive for many, so George Eastman and his camera builder Frank Brownell designed the Brownie. It was made of carton and a bit of wood, metal and glass. It was sold to the photographic trade for 60 cents. The price for the consumers was $ 1. According to George Eastman everyone who had a job could afford it. So the Eastman Kodak Company planned to "manufacture them in enormous quantities".
The first batch consisted of 5000 cameras. On February 8 the first cameras were shipped. The first batch was sold rapidly and another batch of 1000 and then one of 10,000 cameras were ordered at Brownell's factory. And this was only the beginning. But somewhere during the very first weeks it became clear that the design had a flaw: the back was a kind of slip-on box cover. It could be taken from the camera by pressing on the two side panels of the lid. This mechanism was rather flimsy and deteriorated easily. The design was changed and on March 15 the improved models were shipped to the dealers. This means that the original model of the Brownie was only made during a very limited period. According to the literature about 15,000 or 16,000 were produced. Most of them will not have survived long. Now, more than a century later, the orginal Brownie is a very rare instrument.
The importance of the Brownie is not only due to the fact that it is one of the earliest practical one dollar cameras. It also was immensely popular and really made a difference. During the period of February 1900 until October 1901 about 245,000 were manufactured. Many more would follow. But that is only one half of the truth. A lot of people now could afford a camera, but many families still had to wait for years or decades before they could buy a camera. $ 1 seems to be very little, but for the poor it meant food and shelter for a couple of days. In the Netherlands the first Brownie cost 6.50 guilders. Low paid factory workers had to work 7 days of at least 10 hours each to earn this amount. And they needed it all to buy food and pay the rent of their one room appartment.
At first the camera was meant to be used by children, but it soon proved that their parents were buying it for their own use. The Eastman Kodak Company had planned an impressing publicity campaign, starting in May 1900, with ads in a large number of popular magazines, like St. Nicholas, Woman's Home Companion and the Ladies' Home Journal. During the summer of 1900 the combined circulation of all these magazines reached the 6,000,000 mark. Soon the Brownie imps from the children's stories created by Palmer Cox were used to advertise the Brownie cameras. In the early 1900's the Brownie imps were as popular as Mickey Mouse was in the 1930's. It attracted the attention of children and because of the popularity of the story Brownies, the name of the camera was easy to remember.
The Brownie Camera Club was an important part of the campaign. It was open to young people (under 16) who owned a Brownie camera. One of the activities was a photo contest. Prizes were Kodak cameras with a total value of $ 500. Two No. 5 Cartridge Kodaks were the first prizes, one for class A (photo taken and printed by the contestant) and one for class B (photo taken by contestant and developed and printed by a third party).
By December 1, 1900, the competition closed. In 1901 the winners were announced and a tiny booklet with 15 winning pictures was published. The first prize in Class A went to 12 year old Anna B. Moore of Chatham, N.J. and the first prize in Class B went to Mildred Ocert of Cleveland, Ohio.
Size of the booklet is 4 x 3 inch (10.1 x 7.6 cm).
The first ad with a Brownie imp I have been able to find. Saturday Evening Post, June 30, 1900.
The first pages of the 1901 "The Brownie Book".
Some other information:
The dimensions of the camera are 81 mm high, 78 mm wide and 123 mm deep, or 3 x 3 1/8 x 5 inch.
Weight without film: 240 grams or 8.5 oz.
Picture size 57 x 57 mm or 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inch.
1 instantaneous shutter speed and time setting.
f/14 aperture and 100 mm lens.
A roll of film for 6 exposures on transparent film cost 15 cents and a roll for 6 exposures on paper negatives cost 10 cents.
The camera was aimed with the help of V-shaped lines on top. From August 1900 onwards a little reflex finder could be bought for 25 cents. (See video above.)
The Zar camera was an earlier one dollar camera. It took pictures of 2 x 2 inch on glass plates. Maybe this camera inspired George Eastman to manufacture the original Brownie.
The illustration is taken from an ad in Four O'Clock, 1897.