- Historic Sites
“You Press The Button, We Do The Rest”
George Eastman's inexpensive, popular camera helped create the modern age
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
From the start he showed a great sense of the value of a dollar, an instinct for organization, a gift for management. He began to keep a pocket notebook, meticulously recording his expenses to the penny. Though the entries showed the profile of a careful young man, Eastman was not entirely dedicated to work and money. Along with the notations of expenditures for clothes, meals, and other necessities there were items for candy, visits to places of scenic or historic interest, horseback rides, shooting galleries, and other moderately frivolous diversions. He enjoyed leisure; in fact in later life he was to insist that he did not really like to work. And he made the appropriate moves in the direction of self-improvement expected of a young man in that era of high seriousness. He bought a flute and books in French, though whether he got very far in learning to use either of these marks of cultivation is not clear. He bought dumbbells to help develop his muscles. Nor did he seem neglectful of growth in a social direction. Some of his expenditures were for ice cream and other treats for girls whom he took out on the rounds of Rochester’s pleasures. But he formed no serious attachment to any single one—his notebook records his escorting three different girls, at various times, to one of the town’s chief attractions, the roof of the seven-story-high Powers Building. Nor did his dates diminish his attachment to his mother. He was prolific with small gifts for her, and from her shoulders he took an increasing load of responsibility as he grew older —ordering furniture and carpets, supervising spring cleaning, and in other ways acting as head of the household. But for all these expenditures, outgo was carefully kept below income, and at each year’s end a banked surplus of earnings was entered in the account book. Later some of this reserve would go into interest-bearing bonds, real estate, and other enterprises that happily illustrated the breeding properties of money properly laid out.
He seemed methodical, and perhaps a touch dull. It was not simply a question of respectability, but of style. Things had to be complete and in order. In 1876, for example, he treated himself to a trip to Philadelphia to see the Centennial Exposition. “Today,” he wrote to his mother, “I finished the Machinery Hall and some small buildings, and about halfway across the end aisle of the Main.” The results of this dutiful touristic pilgrimage were interesting; the machinery was “bewildering” to him, but he admired the “ingenuity that exhibitors have displayed in arranging … apparently uninteresting articles.”
Arrangements always beguiled him. In later life, on camping and hunting trips that became favorite pastimes, he delighted in supervising the packing and in concocting intricate nests of boxes to protect fragile contents, or dividing supplies into parcels of exactly equal weight so that pack animals could be given identical loads. The quest for efficiency also showed in his domestic arrangements. He devised premeasured packages of cake arid bread mixes to carry on his safaris long before they were marketed commercially; he triumphantly announced to friends in 1882 his discovery of a way to filter coffee grounds by pouring the boiled coffee through absorbent cotton. He was an inveterate gadgeteer.
One would have tabbed him for possible success—but in a carefully circumscribed and unadventurous field. Older, knowing associates might have predicted that he would become a banker and a spare-time creative hobbyist. The odds on his dealing in a product whose commercial career would require innovation and risk seemed low, if one examined his patterns up to 1877. But then photography entered and transformed George Eastman’s life.
It began simply enough. In 1877 he planned on a vacation trip to Santo Domingo, then in the news because of recent American interest in annexing it or at least establishing a naval base there. One of Eastman’s friends at the bank had been a photographer on the expedition led byJohn Wesley Powell that explored the canyons of the Colorado River. He suggested to George that a photographic record of his Caribbean excursion would be well worth having. Nothing loath, Eastman plunged in—and the plunge was a deep one. The trip never materialized, but Eastman was committed to the new art from the beginning. The first step was a heavy investment in equipment. In later years he wrote that when he began as a photographer, one did not take a camera on a trip, one “accompanied an outfit of which the camera was only a part.”