1900-1910: The Brownie Camera

Brownie Camera

The Brownie camera was introduced in 1900 as the first ever portable camera, by Eastman Kodak. Made of cardboard with a simple meniscus lens, it was marketed for children and sold for $1. The Brownie No.2 was an improved model, which came onto the market in 1901. These cameras were used to promote personal photography, almost unheard of at the beginning of the 20th century.

Brownie Camera

Our Brownie Camera

As I was planning to teach this time period, I thought it might be cool to have our very own Brownie camera. This led to some quick searching on ebay, and low and behold there were many, many available. At this point, I honestly thought any that I bought would not work, and indeed, none of the adverts expressively said that they did work. So I bought the cheapest at £4.50. Whilst I was certainly looking forward to it arriving, I wasn’t ready for the complete and utter feeling of love I had for the little brown box as I opened it. I mean, it was just a camera after all…

But this wasn’t just any type of camera. It was a Brownie camera, stripped of all the modern electronic bling of my £600 Nikon. With just one lens, and three aperture settings (small, medium and large), it is photography at its simplest. And yet it was beautiful. Housed in an old, disintegrating canvas bag it was stunning. I couldn’t wait to have a play!

Investigating the Brownie Camera

I watched many YouTube videos about Brownie cameras, read every article and downloaded every manual. I spent hours gluing together all the pages of the manual so that it eventually could be read in the correct order. But I was too scared to touch the actual camera – It was 100 years old – I thought it would probably fall apart in my hands at the first examination. It wasn’t until I read somewhere that the best thing to do was to get playing! I needed no more encouragement. I soon realised that one could probably throw the camera at the wall and it would still remain in one piece! However, I didn’t actually test this theory out 🙂

Independent Learning

I wanted the girls to do some independent learning so I left them with the camera and the manual and told them to play to their heart’s content until I returned from shopping:

Abigail loved this explorative type learning

For those not in the know (us prior to purchasing one!), the Brownie Camera is basically a box with a lens. Inside the box it is a metal frame with a large gaping hole at the back, and a place to wind on a 120 film:

Brownie Camera

There are two levers at the top front of the camera and these control the aperture and the shutter speed. The basic lever positions are up, up-a-bit-more and down. I was feeling confident – surely even I could manage something so simple?

Brownie Camera

I spoke too soon! We immediately became unstuck by the viewers, of which there are two:

Turns out, viewer is a bit of a misnomer if one thinks modern viewer… We assumed we were meant to look through it, but the more we looked, the less we saw. This was not boding well! After numerous attempts we finally figured it out by accident whilst actually taking a picture:

As Becca was trying to straighten the camera, she suddenly saw the reflection of the desired picture through the viewer. It was translucent and absolutely not what we expected, but it did its job!

Taking a Picture

The Brownie Camera takes a 120 film, which whilst rare and expensive, is still available to purchase. Mine came from Amazon at the modest price of £50 (ten times the cost of the actual camera!) for five:

I, rather stupidly, bought the film without first checking that said film could be processed. So, I went to our local camera/photography shop who said that I would be lucky to find any company which processed 120 film, as it was usually processed by the professional photographers themselves. Not being professional at all, and only nominally able to call myself a photographer, that option was not available to me. Not to be deterred, I went online. Soon I found a smashing company. They were willing to answer my inane sounding questions, and even better, able to process my 120 film.

Even though the film was ridiculously expensive, I have one daughter (youngest) who is somewhat of a perfectionist. I wanted to give her the opportunity to play and get to know the camera without the feeling that she might make a mistake. Much drama ensues upon such a mistake as to warrant the calling of emergency services for any who didn’t know her of old. So with that in mind, and hiding my slight wince at the thought of so much money being thrown down the plug hole, I allowed the girls to use one of the five precious films just to practice.

Learning by Doing

Ultimately, I think it was a good thing, because we all learnt a lot. A lot, a lot. We learnt how to put in the film without worrying that we would break it. Quite by accident, we learnt that moving the switch down to take the photo, and then up again, took two photos and not the assumed one. And the two were taken on top of each other, because, of course, this was a camera which needed winding:

The wind-on window

And finally, we learnt how to take the film out without ruining it.

So this week, we have no actual photos to show you. But we did learn how to operate the simplest of cameras in a stress free, fun way. So that’s something, right?


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