Budget Cameras & The Birth Of The Snap-Shot

By David Kelly

When Kodak introduced the Brownie line of cameras in 1900, they also gave birth to the snap-shot. Before the Brownie, photography was expensive and complicated, but Kodak made it simple with a fixed lens, no exposure adjustments and easy to load film. This allowed snap-shot photography to take off in popularity. Everyone could afford them. The first Brownies were very basic cardboard box cameras that sold for $1.00.

After Kodak created the budget camera market, plenty of imitators appeared. Some of the larger brands were Imperial, Argus, Ansco, Spartus and Bell & Howell. After starting with similar looking cameras, all tried to differentiate themselves with odd & interesting designs. While most old cameras are attractive to photographers & design nerds, some of the most widely loved are the Brownies and their competitors from the 1950s & 1960s. By this time, most were Bakelite and gradually transformed by more modern plastics. With these plastics & new metal printing capabilities, these budget cameras became highly styled and very colorful, with decorative graphic patterns and name badges. Some of the Brownies had model names aimed at fun – Flashfun, Fiesta, Starflash and Holiday, for example.

In 1963, Kodak introduced the Instamatic line of budget cameras, with the same stripped down basics as the Brownies. These used the new fully contained 126 cartridge film. This was the next revolution is snap-shot photography and loading was fool proof. The form factor of the cameras changed to accommodate the short, wide cartridge, so Instamatic cameras became more brick shaped. Again, all of the competitors jumped on the 126 wagon and it became the standard for 2 decades. Some of the instamatics take great photos & 126 cartridges can be retrofitted to use 35mm film.

The Imperial Camera Company started in Chicago as Herbert George Co in 1945. It became Imperial in 1961, which is when they really went after the budget market with their bright and angular cameras. Very much like the cars of the time, they were bigger, more colorful and were influenced by the space race. Imperial also gave their camera models cool and interesting names, such as Debonnair, Luminex, Magimatic, Matey, Delta and Adventurer, as well as several existing car names, like Mercury, Satellite, Savoy, Lark and Rambler. Imperial was also known for selling Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts branded cameras. One of the Boy Scouts editions is pictured above.

See a gallery of new and old photos taken with Brownie cameras here.

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