“you Press The Button, We Do The Rest”


Like Henry Ford, Eastman was eager to get his product into the maximum number of hands. He preferred the profits of a mass rather than an elite market and therefore insisted on production economies and technical improvements that cut costs so that the price steadily sank from the twenty-five dollars asked for the original Kodak. The Bull’s Eye model of 1896 (one of manyvariants of the basic camera in differing finishes and cases) cost twelve dollars, and a more modest type, the Falcon, was only five. In 1900 Eastman reached the apparent ultimate in price reduction, however, and also made a shrewd bid for a future generation of Kodak users, with the Brownie. This small box camera cost a single dollar. It took a six-exposure roll of film, purchasable for fifteen cents. It was advertised as something that could be “Operated by Any School Boy or Girl,” and Eastman Kodak encouraged the youngsters to form Brownie Camera Clubs (blank constitutions, prepared in advance—like Eastman’s bread mixes—were sent out on request) and to compete for prizes for the best pictures made with Brownies.

It is hard to know if any photographic careers were begun with Brownies, but there is the testimony of the distinguished pioneer Edward Steichen that he began with another Eastman Kodak model. It was a secondhand detective camera sold to him when he was sixteen, in 1895, and loaded in the darkroom by the dealer. Beginners may be cheered to note that when the fifty-exposure film was returned, only one shot was found printable.

Halfway through 1904 George Eastman celebrated his fiftieth birthday. It was a triumphant half-century mark. He was a mighty entrepreneur and a wealthy man. In the next year he demonstrated his affluence by moving into a new residence that was in effect an upstate New York palace. Its three stories contained thirty-seven rooms, twelve bathrooms, and nine fireplaces; it was surrounded by gardens and hothouses, for Eastman loved flowers; and it had two organs, for he was likewise fond (though somewhat undiscriminatingly) of music. Its walls sported originals by Corot, Whistler, Rembrandt, and Titian, and its library had fine editions, mostly untouched, of Thackeray, Dickens, Hawthorne, Scott, Balzac, and Trollope. The installation of Eastman and his mother in their new estate was celebrated with a dinner party that spoke volumes about the Kodak King’s style and taste. The guests were fed caviar, bouillon, halibut timbales with truffle sauce, breaded sweetbreads, tenderloin of beef with mushrooms, partridges with bread sauce, pumpkin pie, and nesselrode pudding, all washed down with vodka, Rhine wine, punch, and champagne. After this aristocratic banquet, a quartet sang Boys of the Old Brigade, America, In the Good Old Summer Time, Marching Through Georgia, It’s Always Fair Weather, Annie Laurie , and Teasing . Then there were fireworks, topped off by what the handsomely printed and bound menu and program called “A Few Acts of Vaudeville.”

Two years later Eastman’s mother died, and he never took another woman into the house to be its mistress. Hundreds of guests occupied it, enjoyed the fresh flowers, and shared with their host his regular mealtime concerts by a private organist and his weekly evening musicales. Eastman also liked to invite the pretty young wives of his business associates and other friends to luncheons, at which he would cook for them, compliment them, josh them, shower them with small gifts—and scrupulously avoid any deep relationship with any of them. Though Rochester gossips were always ready with rumors of secret liaisons, Eastman lived in a house that always had about it something of the affectedness, the lack of human seasoning, of a wealthy and lonely bachelor’s residence. He was a comforting and comfortable host, vet sometimes he seemed to be on display in his own home.

At the company’s headquarters, his role changed. He remained the chief of a deliberately simplified organization, making the big decisions and constantly reviewing the figures that were forever being neatly columned for his eyes. But a huge array of managers, assistant managers, superintendents, assistant superintendents, foremen, and assistant foremen (375, all told, in 1908) kept operations running without his intervention in the day-to-day details that it had once been his challenge and pleasure to oversee. The research department plunged ever deeper into complex chemical problems beyond Eastman’s theoretical grasp, though when results were achieved, they were presented to him to develop, to market, and to enfold in a kind of parental pride. He was far from a stranger to his own organization —but he was also no longer the man who, with Strong, Reichenbach, Walker, and others, had dirtied his own hands at drawing tables, fussed over emulsions, and experienced the elations and glooms, of those moments when a new idea is first tried.