For such a modest and cheaply constructed camera, this is extremely important historically: this is where photography for the masses truly started. The 1888 Kodak was revolutionary for being the first roll film camera marketed to the general public rather than specialists, but at $25 it was far too expensive for the average person. But a mere 12 years later, George Eastman introduced the first Brownie camera, priced at only $1 – within the reach of almost everyone. And unlike the first Kodak, which had to be sent to the factory to be loaded with film, the Brownie used convenient roll film that could be loaded by anyone, in daylight. The Brownie went on to be wildly successful, selling untold millions of cameras in hundreds of variations over a roughly 60 year period.
The first prototype Brownies were sent to dealers in February 1900, and featured a back with a push-on cover, much like a shoe box lid. It quickly became apparent that this back was far from ideal. Eastman changed the design to a hinged back with a sliding metal locking latch on top and introduced the improved Brownie for public sale in March 1900.
These original 1900 Brownies had no built-in viewfinder. Sight-lines were marked on the top of the camera to give a general idea of where the camera was aimed. An accessory viewfinder that clipped to the top could be purchased for 25c starting in August 1900. This camera has such a finder. It also has a dealer label pasted inside, showing that this Brownie was first sold by Woodard, Clarke & Co. in Portland, Oregon.
Nearly a quarter-million Original Brownies were produced between March 1900 and September 1901, when it was replaced by the No. 1, Model B (there never was a Model A)
The construction is fairly crude, made mostly of cardboard with faux leather covering. The interior film compartment is made of thick cardboard with some wood structural pieces. It is a very small camera, measuring only 3” x 3” by 5”. It took 6 exposures on 117 film, yielding images 2-1/4” square.
The design of the camera required that the film advance key and its escutcheon be entirely removed from the camera to load or unload a roll of film. This loosely-mounted part was consequently easily lost. Later Brownies had permanently-mounted winding keys.
The condition of this Brownie is astonishing considering its cheap construction and great age. The cardboard case and its leatherette covering are flawless, and the nickel plating remains as bright as the day it was made. It is in virtually new condition despite being over 120 years old -- and it is still fully functional.
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