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.

This is one of the first prototype Brownies, released in February 1900 and sent to dealers to examine. These were very quickly found to have a major design flaw: the back has a push-on cover, much like a shoe box lid. Within a month Eastman released the "improved" Brownie, with a hinged back with a sliding metal locking latch on top. The original 'Shoe Box'Brownie was only in production for a month -- February 1900 -- so very few of these “shoe-box” Brownies were made and only a handful survive today.

All early Brownies had no viewfinder. Sight-lines were marked on the top of the camera to give a general idea of where the camera was aimed. A clip-on accessory reflecting finder that mounted on top could be purchased for 25c starting in August 1900.

The construction is fairly crude, made mostly of cardboard with faux leather covering. The interior film compartment is made of thick cardboard with some wooden structural pieces. There are no clips, pins, springs or anything else to secure the film roll in its opening. 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 key and its escutcheon be removed from the camera to load or unload a roll of film. This loosely-mounted part was all too easy to lose. Later Brownies had permanently-mounted winding keys.