Until George Eastman came along photography was a cumbersome process with bulky equipment which required as much skill at chemistry as on focusing the lens. It was reserved for professionals and very wealthy amateur dilettantes. Although the process fascinated the public, each individual print image was expensive. An individual or family might sit once or twice in their lifetimes for a stiff portrait which became an instant priceless family heirloom. Eastman changed all of that on September 4, 1888 when he was granted a patent for a box camera that used the revolutionary roll film that he had developed and patented in 1884. The same day he was granted a trademark for his products—Kodak, a name developed by his mother to feature the letter K, “a strong, incisive sort of letter” using an anagram generator. His instructions to his mother were that he name be “short, easy to pronounce, and not resemble any other name or be associated with anything else.”
Like his inventions, Eastman’s trademarking and marketing was groundbreaking and a harbinger of a new era.
Eastman was born on July 12, 1854 on a small, ten acre farm near Waterville, New York. He was the third and final child and only son of George Washington Eastman and Maria Kilbourne. The farm was essentially a summer get-a-way place. His father had founded the Eastman Commercial College, a business school in the industrial boom town of Rochester in the 1840’s to train clerks, bookkeepers, and managers for the flourishing companies in the town and region.
George Sr.’s health began to fail and the family gave up the farm to move into Rochester full time. The younger George was educated at home by both parents until his father died in 1862. The school was forced to close and his mother had to take in borders to support the family. She eked out, at considerable sacrifice, enough cash to send young George to a local private academy for his first and only formal education.
Eastman was 16 when his middle sister Katie died of polio. He left school to go to work to help support the family. He was devoted to his mother, who he viewed as having sacrificed her youth and life to support and sustain the family. She in turn became reliant on him and did nothing to discourage the devotion. Eastman would never marry, devoting himself to his mother until she died in and then lavishing attention on his surviving sister’s family.
In the early 1870’s young Eastman found work in a local photography shop. He soon mastered the essentials and set up his own successful studio. Like many young Americans of his era, he was a tinkerer, always looking to find ways of improving equipment and processes. He became obsessed with developing an alternative for heavy glass plates which were cumbersome and limited the potential for the new medium.
His own experiments were not successful but in 1881, reviewing recent photographic patents, he found the work of Peter Houston, a Wisconsin farmer. His brother David had filed and been granted a patent for Peter’s development of roll film and a crude camera to use it. The brothers did not have the capacity to develop their invention. He quickly bought the licensing rights along with improvements to the film and to a camera to use it which Houston developed later. In 1889 he would buy the Houston patents outright for $5000. In the meantime, Eastman made his own improvements leading to his own 1888 patent.
Roll film mounted photo-sensitive celluloid strips with an opaque paper backing. The film was loaded onto a reel and then pulled across the back of the camera and fitted into a take-up reel. This allowed the film to be loaded in a lighted room or outdoors instead of in a dark room or under a black-out hood like a glass plate. After each exposure, the film was advanced on the take-up reel until it was full of images. The take-up reel could be removed and then developed and printed.
Kinks had to be worked out in the camera, the most significant being reliably advancing the film at set intervals to avoid double exposures and to prevent mishandling of the film to prevent exposure while loading or unloading. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1888, that Eastman perfected a camera to use roll film.
The first Kodak box camera complete with original packaging, carrying case, and instructions. Note the felt plug used to cover and protect the lens.
His box camera was elegantly simple. It featured a single, fixed aperture lens and a single shutter speed. Film was advanced by turning a key on the top of the box attached to the take-up reel between shots. There was no view finder and the operator was encouraged to line up shots by peeking over the top of the box. The simple lens and fixed shutter speed eliminated complicated adjustment for amateur users and kept the cost of production to a minimum but that meant subjects needed to be within a fixed focus length for maximum clarity, had to be relatively still—although nothing like the minute long exposures of some glass plate cameras, and need to be shot in daylight, the brighter the better.
Eastman’s target audience was not sophisticated professional users—although he would develop cameras using roll film for them in various size formats over time. He was aiming directly for middle class consumers and his business model was borrowed from safety razor baron King Gillette—sell the hardware cheaply at, near, or even below production costs and make money on a monopoly on selling film for the camera and for developing and making prints.
He flooded the country with print advertising touting his new product and sold the cameras for one Dollar. In an era when the public was becoming enamored of new inventions and innovations including the telephone, electric light, gramophone, and bicycles consumers were eager to adopt modern gadgets.
Despite brisk sales, a certain cumbersomeness of the Kodak system limited growth. The box cameras were sold pre-loaded with film sealed inside. When the user finished the roll in inside he or she had to mail the entire camera back to the Eastman plant in Rochester where the film would be removed, processed, and prints made. The camera was reloaded with new film and sent back to the customer along with their negatives and prints. That meant that the camera was out of the users hands and unavailable for use for weeks at a time. Wealthier families sometimes had two or three so one was available.
The cost of processing and film was fairly steep. Users initially were very conservative in using their film. They also mostly modeled what they shot on the work of professional photographers—stiff, often grimly posed formal portraits of loved ones. A user might take a year or two, or even longer to fill a roll. The era of the informal snapshot had not yet arrived.
Still, there were enough customers to rapidly make Eastman Kodak, formally established in 1892, the largest manufacturer and employer in Rochester. His expanded line of more professional equipment took off. In 1889 Eastman developed and patented flexible transparent film which the French Lumière Brothers and their American competitor Thomas Edison adapted for motion picture film. Eastman was soon supplying the rapidly expanding and booming new industry.
Eastman also took advantage of an explosion of camera companies, each touting their own specialties and improvements. Instead of battling these potential competitors for possible patent infringement in court as Edison was constantly doing with film and phonograph companies, Eastman quickly produced film for each camera quickly turning his competitors into his customers and unintentional business partners.
This Brownie model from the 1920's is the same one I used as a child. Note the two view finders to accommodate shots taken vertically and horizontally for the rectangular prints.
Then in 1901 Eastman introduced a major upgrade to his consumer box camera. He called it the Brownie after the popular fairies in magazine cartoons by Palmer Cox. In fact, Cox illustrated the initial advertising for the cameras which Eastman promoted with the slogan, “You push the button, we do the rest.” The new cameras were still simple boxes, but customers now loaded their own film and sent the finished reels to Rochester for processing, not the whole camera. A simple view finder was added so that shots could be more effectively lined up. 120,000 Brownies were shipped in the first six months of production and sales continued to rise year by year until by the time of the Great Depression it seems that almost every American family had one and scrapbook albums of family photos were treasured keepsakes.
The Brownie was improved many times over the decades. In 1928 a synchronized electronic flash attachment was added enabling indoor and limited nighttime photography. In the ‘30s the old leatherette covered box became a streamlined Bakelite case with art deco touches. In the mid-‘50s a built-in flash was added. There were variations in size and style, but the camera was still the main recorder of American home and family life and had been taken to war by GIs from the trenches of World War I to Vietnam.
I shot hundreds of pictures with the same box Brownie my mother had since the ‘20s and my brother used an updated Brownie Hawkeye, our pictures added to and filling new albums that my mother carefully kept up as the official chronicle of our family.
All of the photos on this album page were taken with the same Kodak Brownie with the exception of the photo of my father and an Army buddy taken in a Cairo, Egypt bar by a photo girl. Clockwise from top left, my mother Ruby Mills as a teenager about 1930; a couple of years earlier with her siblings Pearl (Jack), Mildred, and the baby Virginia shortly before her death (other boy an unidentified cousin), Mom showing off the furnishing of their new apartment in Hibbing, Minnesota about 1937, Dad in the same apartment (note the console radio); my Uncle Winfred (Ray) with his mother Abigail Murfin, and her mother holding Ray's infant daughter Nancy in the early '40's; and my brother Tim snapping a picture of me snapping a picture of him in front of our Cheyenn, Wyoming home in 1959. I was using Mom's old box Brownie.
In the 50’s the Brownie came under competition from the instant gratification of the Polaroid-Land Camera. However novel, the Polaroid and its film were comparatively expensive and you could not easily get duplicate prints. Kodak competed with the introduction of cartridge cameras—the Instamatics that began to replace the old Brownies in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. The introduction ubiquitous Fotomat kiosks in shopping center parking lots which exclusively sold Kodak film and supplies, meant that customers could have prints in 24 hours or often the same day instead of waiting a week to “get back from the lab.” Automated photo labs or mini-labs that could be placed on-site at pharmacies, groceries, and Big Box, cut typical processing time to about 20 minutes in most stores in the ‘80s.
In the ‘90s the introduction of the cheap pre-loaded cardboard disposable camera boosted Kodak sales while ironically harkening back to the earliest days of the Box Camera when the whole thing had to go to the go back to the lab.
But rapid technological change was about to doom film cameras for all but specialty and professional use. The rapid introduction and improvement of digital cameras, accelerating when cameras became a standard feature of almost all cell phones was a nail in the coffin of Eastman Kodak’s long successful business model. And as the market dwindled the shrinking share of film was being hijacked by the Japanese competitor Fuji Film which undercut Kodak’s prices across the board.
By 2010 Kodak had effectively exited the camera and film business to concentrate on digital imaging and printing technology. It filed for bankruptcy in 2012, sold many of its business lines and patents, and slashed its domestic manufacturing payrolls to the bone. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2015 after shedding almost all of its consumer products. At this writing it is desperately trying to save its one remaining film line—commercial motion picture stock by negotiating new deals with the major Hollywood studios and production companies. Wall Street is betting against them. Almost all of the shrunken company’s business is now in printing equipment and services for business.
George Eastman with Thomas Edison and a 35 millimeter Kodak movie camera.
As for that shrewd businessman who started it all George Eastman, he prospered mightily. By the early 20th Century, he was one of the richest men in America and an admired inventor/captain of industry in the league with Bell, Edison, Westinghouse, Firestone, and Ford. Unlike some of them, he operated his business on a high ethical standard, and was noted for his fair treatment of his employees and rewarding them with relatively high pay. He also started, at an early age, giving away more of his wealth than just about anyone this side of Andrew Carnegie.
In 1901 as the Brownie was taking off, Eastman gave $625,000—the equivalent of more than $17 million today—to the Mechanics Institute, now the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1916 he paid for the cost of the construction of the second campus for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also generously endowed the Tuskegee Institute and Hampton University, both Black institutions in the South and several schools for the poor in major European cities. In honor of his beloved mother and his own passion for music—he was an accomplished pianist—he created and endowed the Eastman School of Music at Rochester University and the schools of medicine and dentistry. In fact, public health was another passion, particularly often neglected dental health. He opened dental clinics for the poor in U.S. cities and in several European cities.
On a personal level, his life was not a happy one after the death of his mother, for whom he grieved deep and long. As noted, he never married and made his sister’s children a surrogate family. His health began to deteriorate in the late ‘20s and he cut back his commitment to Eastman Kodak, leaving the Presidency to become Treasurer and concentrating on the firm’s finances and investments.
In his final years Eastman suffered from some sort of degenerative spinal condition which left him in great pain and reduced his mobility until he was confined to a wheelchair. Even desk work became almost impossible, and he sank into a depression. On March 14, 1932 George Eastman put a bullet through his heart at age 77 leaving behind a note that read simply “To my friends, my work is done—Why wait? GE.”
Among the generous gifts in his will, he left his Rochester mansion where he had frequently entertained friends with concerts to the University of Rochester. In 1949 the University opened it as the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, now an internationally famed institution and the home important photography and cinema scholars.