If you’re familiar with the Brownie camera, you might not give its name a second thought. After all, Brownies were produced for decades and many of us grew up around them. That’s just the name, right?
But when they were introduced in 1900, the name was significant. The cameras were advertised as being so simple to operate, even a child could do it. And the name? A popular cartoon at the time.
At the turn of the 20th century stories were read in serial form by many people. Popular magazines of the day ran them, like Palmer Cox’s series in Lady’s Home Journal. His characters also filled his children’s books.
Brownies are akin to fairies and goblins. They are mischievous, but good natured. They are the Celtic little people, and Cox illustrated their adventures.
Cox’s Brownies were used in merchandise and so Kodak borrowed them for their new advertising campaign. Reportedly, Palmer Cox never received compensation, although if you think about it, his Brownies would be all but forgotten today if not for the Brownie camera. So at least he lives in infamy.
If you’d like to know more about the Brownie camera, here’s a great article from The Franklin Institute.
What do you think about these Brownies? Cute? Not so much?
Read about Grace McCaffery and her Brownie Camera in Grace’s Pictures.
In Grace’s Pictures, Grace McCaffery longs to capture an image so that she can study it more closely. What better way to do that than with Kodak?
She tries sketching, but she’s not very good at it. She visits a photographer and wants to learn about picture-taking, but he does not want her to get too close to his expensive equipment. Besides, he confuses her with all the technical terms, and she realizes the process would require time and study and she doesn’t have much time. Besides being a means to freeze a moment in time, she believes photography could become a side business for her. She needs money in a hurry to bring her mother over from Ireland and save her from her peeler (policeman) husband.
The Advent of the Brownie
And then she discovers the Brownie camera. First introduced in 1900, this Kodak box camera was unique in a couple of ways. It was small and very portable. The user did not have to worry about the process of developing film. He or she just mailed the filled roll of film back to Kodak and soon the postman delivered your snapshots. (The snapshot was a new concept as well.) But perhaps the most appealing thing about the Brownie was that it cost only one dollar. To purchase a traditional camera outfit from Sears & Roebuck cost thirty times more! It was not as simple to use either. (Brownies were: crank the film, aim, shoot, and crank again.) Not to mention the fact that you had to develop your own film. What a mess!
An Invasion of Privacy
The introduction of the Brownie camera meant that the average person on the street could own one and carry it around. And, as someone commented in a contemporary newspaper, people could be taking photographs of folks who did not wish to be photographed. It was an invasion of privacy!
In Grace’s Pictures, she commits this invasion of someone’s privacy quite by accident. And in turn of the 20th century Manhattan, there were hordes of criminals about. And a corrupt police department. A naïve young immigrant girl could easily find trouble without looking.
The Brownie’s Legacy
My family had a Brownie camera in the ’60s and it operated pretty much the same way. The Brownie was an ingenious invention that did change society. I wonder what those folks would have thought about our smart phones today. We can take moving pictures of strangers now and instantly post them for the world to see.
Do you have any Brownie camera memories? I would love to hear them!
…could be here.
Many of these photographs used in this video were taken by Augustus Sherman. He appears in my novel, Grace’s Pictures, and takes Grace McCaffery’s photograph as she prepares to leave Ellis Island. These faces hold so many stories–the reason I wrote this book.