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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
Eastman also prepared for the conquest of mass markets with a steady program of expansion, reorganization, and strategic control of all the avenues and byways of the picture business. At one point he wrote with enthusiasm to Strong: “The manifest destiny of the Eastman Kodak Company is to be the largest manufacturer of photographic materials in the world or go to pot.” There was little chance of a journey potwards, however. A reorganization of the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1890 capitalized the corporation at a million dollars. In 1892 another session with bankers and lawyers resulted in the Eastman Kodak Company of New York, capital five million. In 1898 there was still another metamorphosis, and a new structure including Kodak, Etd., a large British subsidiary, was set up, with a capitalization of eight million dollars. Eastman made a personal profit of $960,000 as the arranger of the reorganization and enjoyed reporting that when he elatedly told his mother: “Mother, we have a million dollars now,” her sole comment was: “That’s nice, George.” By then materials-manufacturing centers had been set up in a number of countries, a new factory exclusively for cameras had risen in Rochester, and a vast plant for general photographic-supply manufacture was in existence on a plot of land in the little township of Greece, adjoining Rochester. Greece has long since become part of the larger city, but Kodak Park is still the dominant element in its economic landscape.
The full extent of Kodak expansionism was revealed in a new creation in 1901. At that time large corporations were making efforts to circumvent the eleven-year-old Sherman Antitrust Act, which, theoretically at least, placed a barrier in the way of the mergers that were taking place at an accelerating rate. One acceptable device was the holding company, which owned the stock of various subsidiaries and managed them as one, though they remained technically independent “competitors.” New Jersey’s legal code smiled on holding companies, and so, in the same year that saw the creation of the world’s first billion-dollar corporation, United States Steel, Eastman Kodak of New Jersey was likewise incorporated. Its capital was certainly more modest than U.S. Steel’s, a mere thirty-five million, but it was no infant. The companies involved were Eastman Kodak of Rochester, the General Aristo Company of Rochester (an establishment manufacturing photographic paper and supplies), and Kodak, Etd., of Eondon—these three with factories in Rochester and Jamestown, NewYork, and Harrow, England; and in addition the Eastman Kodak Société Anonyme Française and the Kodak Gesellschaft, headquartered respectively in Paris and Berlin. All these operating firms had branch offices in New York, San Francisco, Eiverpool, Glasgow, Brussels, Eyon, Milan, Vienna, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Melbourne. By 1907 Eastman would be the boss of five thousand employees around the world. By 1915, during the first administration of Woodrow Wilson, he would also be under heavy attack from the United States government as a monopolistic superpower of photography, dominating more than 80 per cent of the market and forcing suppliers and dealers throughout the country to dance to his tune and accept his terms.
Kodak’s response was to point out the existence of at least four other important camera manufacturers, eight makers of film, and a number of rivals in the supply business. But the fact was that none of them approached Eastman’s giant company in scope, and finally Eastman was forced to avoid federal prosecution by authorizing an out-of-court settlement that divested his organization of several subsidiaries. The company remained large and diversified, however—sometimes to the bemusement of its founder, according to one story of post-World War i years. At that time the company went into a number of allied fields arising out of its chemical operations. These included the manufacture of cellulose, wood alcohol, and other ingredients and by-products of film. Among the spinoffs were synthetic fabrics, and when Eastman was shown some Celanese neckties made by his company in 1930, he mused aloud: “All I had in mind was to make enough money so that my mother would never have to work again.”
This huge expansion rested, ultimately, on Eastman’s ability to deliver what his advertisements promised in the dawning age of ballyhoo — a good camera, which, through the years, became more and more portable and inexpensive. In 1890 a folding model of the Kodak appeared, enabling some reduction in the size of the basic box. Further work yielded the Pocket Kodak in 1895, which was so instantaneously successful that within a short time after its announcement Eastman’s European demand alone was for two thousand a month, and he was writing that he would “strain every nerve” to boost production to six hundred daily. In 1898 the Folding Pocket Kodak was introduced, only 1½ inches thick and 6½ inches long, producing a 2½-inch-by-3½-inch negative, which remained the standard size for years.