Antique Cameras and the ubiquitous Kodak Brownie

Have you ever wondered what it was like “back in the day” with those old cameras? Remember the black box you grandparents had that took pictures? The ol’ Kodak Brownie was sold by the hundreds of thousands in the 50’s and 60’s. In fact the name Brownie was used by Kodak throughout the over 100 year life of company. It seems any box with a lens and a shutter was called a Brownie. The premise of the camera is simple, put a hole in a box and with the help of a mechanical shutter expose a frame of film. If a ground lens is put in the space for the little hole all the better!

Recently I have fallen into a large cash of antique cameras. Most of these gems are going to be great wall pieces. Old cameras make great art. The material is foreign, the cameras with bellows never fail to look old and evoke memories of lost loved ones or old pictures from magazines, family photo albums, or movies (always in black and white.) If the lens looks like it might take a good photo I’m likely to load a roll of film into the box and push the shutter. Of course, it’s not quite that easy. First the 120 film from the retailer needs to be re-spooled onto the old Kodak 620 spool. The film is the same but the Kodak stem is smaller making it impossible to load the 120 film. In a few moments I’ve made the necessary transfer and into the camera it goes.

I came across the camera pictured here in the boxes and it looked too good to be true. The leather cover and camera looked showroom perfect. The leather was so untarnished it was a little difficult to remove it from the camera and load the film. In the day this original “point and shoot” camera was designed to be easy to use. There is no focus, no shutter speed, and no aperture ring to mess with. To a teenager of the 2010’s this is all as it seems it should be, after all this is how the phone camera works. Even to the 40 somethings who used a point and shoot 35mm camera or one of those disposable cameras at the department store or pharmacy, the Brownie is a fancy version of that camera.  The Brownie of the 50’s and 60’s was molded of an early plastic substance called bakelight. Over time the material becomes brittle but back in the day dropping the camera was unl

ikely to do any real damage. With this very clean “new” camera I decided to explore what kind of photo it would take.

Take a look for yourself. The photos came right out of the camera via an Epson 700 scanner that scans and reverses the negative. I didn’t clean up scratches or make any adjustment other than to do minor exposure adjustments, if necessary.

You can decide for yourself what you think. Here’s my view. The photos (all 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches) are not sharp like the cameras but they would be acceptable for a family album when printed. It didn’t take any expertise to take a photo, just look down through the viewfinder and push the shutter. The cost of the film and developing came to about $25.00 (assuming you had to buy a 620 roll of film from B&H photo) and the camera can be had anywhere for about $20.00. Compare that to the cost of a new digital camera.

Of course these old antiques aren’t for everyone. For many people they are too much work. But if you’re curious or are looking to see what is was like back in the day…

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