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“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
The nineties opened, therefore, with the Kodak in existence—a simple box camera using flexible film, suitable for mass production, and achieved only twelve years after Eastman had first acquired for himself the cumbersome paraphernalia of photography. In his second decade as a businessman Eastman pyramided his firm into a multimillion-dollar trust. He did so by a combination of techniques that would become familiar in other branches of industry. They included heavy advertising; a steady drive to control all the steps in the production process, from raw material to finished goods; a reach for monopoly; and relentless improvement and cheapening of the product. Kodak was a model for what was going on elsewhere in American industry in those economically stormy and significant years. Modern America’s tastes, habits, and industrial productive patterns were emerging, and Eastman’s success came in part through his careful estimates of what their ultimate shape would be.
Advertising had ample room for growth in the nineties. Technology had produced newspaper presses capable of each day turning out hundreds of thousands of copies of newspapers containing dozens of pages. And in those pages there was ample display of illustrated appeals to buythe varied array of ready-made goods pouring out of the country’s factories. Urbanites especially -a growing segment of the population—were steadily exposed to tempting pictures of boots and shoes, bonnets and corsets, patent medicines and packaged foods, rugs and furniture, watches and hardware, sewing and washing machines, baby buggies and pianos, stoves and so on, almost endlessly. In this world of huckstering Eastman moved with boldness and a brilliant sense of direction. In May of 1889 he took full-page advertisements in all the major magazines— Harper’s, Century, Scribner’s, Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s, Puck, Judge , and Life — to sing the praises of the new film (which he was convinced would “ entirely replace glass plates, at least for amateur work … as fast as the goods can be made”). This campaign of magazine advertising was never relaxed, and its themes varied. The basic chord was “you press the button,” but testimonials were solicited showing the variety of uses to which the Kodak could be put. A doctor’s wife took pictures of patients’ visible symptoms to assist her husband. A passenger agent of a railroad took shots of the scenery along the route and used them as display ads. Burton Holmes, a travel lecturer, naturally found the Kodak indispensable for bringing back evidence of the attractions he described.
The great were frequently cited as Kodak users; one advertisement noted that the wife of Chicago’s traction magnate Charles Yerkes and likewise Mrs. George M. Pullman, whose husband manufactured the famous sleeping cars, “‘press the button’ of the Kodak with good results.” It was, of course, an extra attraction that even ladies, presumably daunted by anything mechanical, could easily work the camera. In England, Eastman got additional advertising leverage from celebrities. Prince George and Princess Mary (later King George v and his queen) were Kodak carriers. Rudyard Kipling was willing, one assumes for a consideration, to declare publicly that he was “amazed at the excellence of the little Kodak’s work.” In 1897 a huge electric sign flashed the Kodak name over Trafalgar Square. One somewhat spectacular plug was in a little-known Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, L ‘tofna, which introduced two “modest maidens” who sang:
Such messages—and by 1899 Kodak’s advertising budget was up to three quarters of a million dollars per year (as contrasted with fortyeight million in 1970)—found a ready audience because of a social development that was accelerating steadily as the old century died and the new replaced it. This was the increase in popular leisure and in activities to fill it. The period from 1890 to 1910 saw, among other things, the bicycle craze; the proliferation of outdoor hiking clubs; the beginnings of automobile tourism; the heyday of vaudeville; the early, crude movies; the development of baseball into a universally enjoyed spectator sport, with a network of major and minor leagues; the beginnings of big-time college football it is possible to go on in a Whitmanesque fashion. Increasingly, Americans who lived above the poverty line took to diverting themselves, and the camera was a perfect companion. Society was ready for the Kodak.