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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
In the year 1854 a young man named George Washington Eastman rather reluctantly maintained a residence in Waterville, New York. The reluctance arose from the fact that while the hamlet was pleasant enough, its population of a few hundred souls offered no scope for the ambitions and needs of a father of two little girls, with a third child on the way. George Washington Eastman was a teacher of the arts of business, and to find pupils he was obliged to leave his wife Maria, and little Ellen and Emma, for regular trips to Rochester, some seventy miles to the west. As a busy stop on the Erie Canal and a flour-milling center with other growing industries, Rochester furnished a supply of young men to enroll in Eastman’s Commercial College, which he opened there to instruct them in “Commercial Penmanship and Book-Keeping by Double Entry,” as used in all branches of “Trade and Commerce, Including Wholesale, Retail, Commission, Banking, Manufacturing, Shipping and Steam-Boating, Individual Partnership and Compound Company Business.” The cost—diploma included—was twenty-five dollars. An extra five allowed students to take the “teacher’s course,” which included “Ornamental Penmanship in all the Ancient and Modern Hands.”
On July 12, 1854, the new baby—a son, named George—was born. Six years after that the hard-working father moved the family to Rochester and finally eliminated his back-and-forth journeyings. Two years later he died. It is a pity that George Washington Eastman, professor of business, did not live to see his son grow up to become a master of wholesale, retail, manufacturing, and “compound company” affairs—one of the top dozen or so among a generation of entrepreneurs who transformed the United States into a twentieth-century society. For George Eastman belongs on the muster roll of capitalists whose specialty was to wed the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century to mass-producing and marketing techniques, and thereby to create enormous quantities of goods for Everyman. They made the consumer king, and like court necromancers won favor by providing royalty with comforts, gadgets, and diversions. Like Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell or Henry Ford—to name but a few—Eastman was able to combine his own hunches, his grasp of theory, and other men’s ideas in sharply focused inventions that had immediate, practical, common utility. Like them, too, he was able to orchestrate the work of engineering and merchandising experts so as to put the invented device into the hands of millions.
His presentation to mankind was the inexpensive, popular camera. At first glance it may seem an instrument of much less social gravity and consequence than the electric light, the telephone, or the automobile. But it is worth recollecting that the camera, joined with electric lights and motors (in inventions by Edison), created the movies; that the camera, crossed with the electron gun, is responsible for television. In a certain sense Eastman carries the awesome paternity of the modern age of the image, with all its deep effects on man’s consciousness and sense of reality.
His childhood and youth seemed commonplace enough, though they were given something of a harsh edge by economic adversity. George Washington Eastman’s death left his widow almost penniless. She kept things going by taking in boarders, and the children grew up watching her struggle bitterly with the chores of housekeeping on a pinched budget. George adored his mother and swore from the start that he would repay her for her efforts and sacrifices some day. It became a lodestar in his life.
Still it was not a bad childhood. Young America liked to think of its future heroes as having been specifically toughened by the tasks of frontier farming. But Eastman was a city boy who never split a rail or hunted for the family’s supper. He was a quiet, undistinguished schoolboy, on the whole seemingly more given to prudence than to pranks. He had a knack for tinkering, and likewise a strong attachment to capitalist economics, at an early age. Once he constructed an ingenious puzzle out of wires. An admiring friend asked for it as a gift, but young George demanded, and got, cash on the barrelhead—reputedly ten cents.
At fourteen, like most of his selfsufficient peers, Eastman went forth to wrestle with the world, his formal schooling done. He found a job as an office boy in an insurance company. Though his initial tasks included such lowly assignments as cleaning the boss’s cuspidor, he worked his way steadily upward to clerk. Later he became a junior officer in a bank. His salary began at three dollars a week. By the time he was in his early twenties, the bank was paying him a then very comfortable fourteen hundred a year.
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.”
The process then used was wetplate photography, in which the image was recorded on glass plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. It was necessary to prepare the plates immediately before use and expose and develop them before they dried. To achieve this a formidable amount of gear was required. Eastman’s initial purchases—the bill of sale for which he carefully preserved —came to over fifty dollars, a goodly sum in 1877, and subsequent acquisitions raised his opening investment in the art to more than ninety dollars, which possibly did not include the five he paid someone for lessons. The starting kit included not only the heavy camera itself, together with a tripod, plus plates, paper, boxes for storing negatives, and a tent that could be set up as a darkroom, but also the furnishings of a small chemistry laboratory—nitrate of silver, acetate soda, chlorides of gold, sodium, and iron, collodion, varnish, alcohol, litmus paper, hydrometer, graduate, evaporating dish, funnel, bristle brush, scales and weights, and washing pans. Ail of this had to be packed along to the site of the picture taking, which therefore became a hobby only for the affluent and for the extraordinarily patient and dedicated.
It would become Eastman’s fate to change all this. The mysterious internal process that drew him at once to become deeply involved with the camera is beyond the historian’s probe. It is enough to say that the young bank clerk began to spend increasing amounts of time behind the lens and in the developing room, and to read everything he could lay hands on concerning photographic techniques. At some point his pastime began to demand a share of his energy that could have encroached on his business career if he had not decided to make his pastime his business. This turning point was reached some time in 1878. Later on—perhaps with the benefit of hindsight—Eastman expressed a philosophy that explained the development of his career. Though he enjoyed reading about science, he declared in a magazine article written when he was nearly sixty, the intellectual adventure of pure research was not fulfilling. “There is, to me,” he said, “more adventure in putting each discovery to the ultimate test of public use, for then the discovery becomes an addition to everyday life.” If this was, in fact, a belief that he held at twenty-four, it explains why he moved quickly toward making photography more efficient and more available to others.
Eastman’s first interest, like that of other photographers at the time, was in devising a dry plate, which would eliminate the awkward need for immediate development of a shot. The problem was to find an emulsion that would keep its sensitivity even when dried and held in storage. In the journals of photography, both British and American, to which Eastman subscribed, enthusiastic amateurs exchanged recipes for such emulsions like gourmet cooks. He himself joined zealously in the quest. He continued to work at the bank by day, but at night he would return to the rented house faithfully kept by his mother, eat supper, then go into the kitchen to measure, pour, stir, and test for hours on end. He had great powers of concentration. Often he would remain at this task overnight, and when this proved too taxing, he set up a cot so that he could fall upon it, fully dressed, for restorative naps. A youthful constitution buoyed him through these rigors, and by 1880 he had invented and patented not only a dry plate but a machine for preparing large numbers of such plates quickly. The basis of his process not the only one on the market, to be sure—was an emulsion containing gelatin, which when dried adequately protected the sensitized surface against the hard knocks of shipment and usage.
Now he vaulted into the world of self-employment. Hc had his patents, he had three thousand dollars in savings, and to strengthen his hand he took a partner. One of his mother’s boarders had been Henry A. Strong, a likable manufacturer of buggywhips who had grown attached to Eastman and who would one daywrite him: “You are a queer cuss, Geo., … but I want you to know . . . that I am always with you heart and hand. Never take my silence for indifference. … We surely are neither of us very demonstrative.”
Undemonstrative or not, Strong had enough faith in his young friend to join him in renting one floor of a factory building and commencing the operations of the Eastman Dry Plate Company, which officially went into business on New Year’s Day, 1881.
The first year was sweaty and successful. No longer the leisure-loving young bachelor, Eastman worked with incredible energy at finding jobbers and customers, publicizing the firm, overseeing the physical details of production—and improving the product. He would not rest content with merely an entry into a branch of the photographic-supply business. “The idea graduallydawned on me,” he recollected later, “that what we were doing … was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair.” Or, as he afterward put it more crisply, to “make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”
There were ups and downs. In the first three months the firm got enough orders to occupy six employees. And before the end of 1881 the company was in larger quarters, in a fourstory building on State Street, Rochester’s major downtown thoroughfare. Eastman had also gone abroad, found dealers, and set up offices in England. But then disaster almost overwhelmed him. Reports came back to Rochester from across the Atlantic: plate after plate made by the firm had turned out defective.
Eastman met the crisis with dispatch. He set associates to work around the clock checking factory operations to see what was going wrong, and immediately took ship for England to examine the defective stock. He then, figuratively, took a deep breath and sent a message to every customer: each and every bad plate would be replaced without charge. There was no way of knowing the extent of this commitment when it was made. For all Eastman knew, his entire product for months might have been useless. As it turned out, however, only a single batch of emulsion had gone bad, and only a limited number of plates had slowly deteriorated on wholesalers’ and shopkeepers’ shelves. Eastman emerged from the episode with a solid reputation for standing behind his product.
By early 1883 the bit was in his teeth. He wanted to go beyond dry plates, which were still, after all, fragile and space-consuming sheets of treated glass. Photographers were now looking for something else—a material that would be lightweight, flexible, easily stored (perhaps in the camera itself), and durable—a “film” on which images could be captured, to be printed later.
Eastman did not conceive of the idea of film on his own. He was not the first or last man to experiment with an eye to creating it, and some of his company’s basic patents were discovered by others and only purchased by him. (At least one inventor claimed priority on a fundamental Eastman process, and won his lawsuit.) Yet Eastman was the persistent, determined leader who put the power of organization and capital into the quest. It had taken him but five years—1878 to 1883—to move from amateur picture taking to success as a manufacturer of equipment that made life easier for thousands of other amateurs. In just the next five years he would move most of the remaining distance toward the goal of a camera “as convenient as the pencil.”
Film was the key innovation. The problem was to find a substance that could be produced in a continuous strip—like a set of dry plates joined together—drawn past the lens, and subjected to the handling that would turn exposures into prints without stretching and tearing. The first result achieved by Eastman and his coworkers was an emulsion containing collodion, which was a solution of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol that dried to a tough film and had been used to coat plates and in other photographic applications since the early days of the art. (It was also esteemed by doctors for holding dressings in place and covering wounds and lesions.) This emulsion was spread on a strip of paper and dried. The paper, which provided the necessary tensile strength and spooling properties, was stripped away after exposure, and the film proper could then be processed successfully. In 1884 Eastman’s company took out patents on this American Film, as he called it, and prepared for an assault on the market. He reorganized his firm under a new name, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. Its capital was increased to $200,000. Half of that was the estimated value of the patents held by Strong, Eastman, and an associate named William H. Walker, and half was new capital. The simple partnership of Eastman and Strong was on its way to becoming a major corporation. In 1885 a device called a roll holder—an attachment for any camera, which carried a supply of the paper-backed film—was patented.
The film and holder by themselves were important steps but not enough to guarantee the creation of a true mass market for cameras. There were handling problems that involved inexperienced users in disaster—most especially the stripping operation, during which the film often was pulled out of shape or hopelessly ripped. Eastman saw that what was needed was a “complete system” that could somehow be utilized by anyone, even a photographic ignoramus wholly unaware of the very definition of such words as “lens” and “negative” but simplyanxious to have a picture of what he saw before him. The answer would lie in both a better film and a better camera.
While the quest for film was in progress, Eastman’s plant, and others, had been working toward small and light cameras to replace the heavy, tripod-mounted instruments that, with their long bellows, were familiar in studios. A few box-shaped hand cameras were available early in the 1880’s, and because they sometimes were unrecognizable as photographic equipment, they theoretically allowed subjects to be taken unawares. For this reason they were called detective cameras. Eastman designed and marketed one in 1886, but it ran into production difficulties. It was not fated, therefore, to be what he was really looking for—a camera “that would take pictures in the hands of a greenhorn.”
In 1888 that camera was born. Into the world came Everyman’s magic box for freezing moments of personal history into pictorial permanence. All in the wink of an eye, the click of a shutter, it could imprint a memory on a piece of paper for time unending. If photography itself was something of a miracle, this made the miracle instantaneous and almost anyone a miracle worker. The new camera bore a strange name, proudly worked out (and later explicated) by Eastman. “Kodak,” he called it, because a trademark should be short, vigorous, incapable of being misspelled to an extent that will destroy its identity and—in order to satisfy trademark laws—it must mean nothing. …
The letter “K” had been a favorite with me—it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. Therefore, the word I wanted had to start with “K.” Then it became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with “K.” The word Kodak is the result. Instead of merely making cameras and camera supplies, we made Kodaks and Kodak supplies. It became the distinctive word for our products. Hence the slogan: “If it isn’t an Eastman, it isn’t a Kodak.”
It was a superb trade name; it had something of the snap of the lensopening mechanism about it—something brisk and decisive. It was a near-palindrome, almost impossible to forget or misspell. And like “Victrola,” “Thermos bottle,” and “Scotch Tape"—all manufacturers’ names for brands of record players, vacuum bottles, and cellophane tape —“Kodak,” as Eastman desired and predicted, became the perfect trademark, a synonym for the product itself.
The primal Kodak—the Model T of cameradom—was compact by standards of that time. It was 6½ inches long, 3¼ wide, and 3¾ inches high. Made of wood, it had a fixedfocus lens. It could easily be carried in a leather case. The picture it took was round and a scant 2½ inches in diameter. And it cost twenty-five dollars. The owner was emancipated from any concern with even the simplest mechanics. The camera came already loaded with enough film for one hundred exposures. The shutter was snapped, a key wound to advance the film, and a string pulled to recock the shutter. And when the last photo was taken, the user simply sent the entire box back to Rochester. There Eastman’s specially trained workers opened it, stripped the film, developed the shots, and returned to the sender his finished prints, and the camera, reloaded. This cost ten dollars, but it meant that once the initial cost was absorbed, a Kodak buyer was getting pictures at ten cents apiece. No matter how much of a duffer he was, moreover, if he could point the camera at a target in enough light, he could count on capturing the scene. Eastman’s advertising slogan was not only inspired in being concise and personal but, unlike many such statements, was also literally true. It said, with majestic simplicity: “You press the button, we do the rest.”
Eighteen eighty-eight was Kodak’s birth year. Eighteen eighty-nine saw another major step. A chemist hired by Eastman, Henry Reichenbach, had been busily working for three years on a film that would not need any backing. Eastman was spurred on in the search by requests from Thomas Edison for something that he could use in the motion-picture camera he was developing. It would have to be tough enough to be perforated and whirled rapidly through sprocketed wheels, and it would have to be capable of being produced in great lengths.
Reichenbach built upon experimental foundations that had already been laid in treating collodion with various substances and that had resulted in the invention of celluloid in 1868. He finally found that a mixture of camphor, fusel oil, and amyl acetate, dissolved in a solution of nitrocellulose and wood alcohol, would dry to form a transparent negative film that needed no support from paper or anything else. The discovery not only opened the door to movie making but it emancipated even Kodak users from the extra step of returning their films to the plant for stripping and processing. The way was now open for development at home or, in time, at any of numerous photographic stores, and eventually corner drugstores. The new film was a crowning touch.
Reichenbach and Eastman did not know that almost simultaneously with their application for a patent for this new kind of roll film a New Jersey minister named Hannibal Goodwin had come up with an essentially similar invention. Goodwin lacked the funds to make the necessary tests, so he did not receive his patent for another eleven years. Eastman, on the other hand, was able to rush into the marketplace. Goodwin’s patents later found their way into the hands of the Ansco Company, and in 1914, after lengthy litigation (and after Goodwin’s death), a court ruled that Eastman had to pay Ansco five million dollars, despite his grumbling that “Mr. Goodwin never made a roll of film.” By then Reichenbach had long since left the Eastman company—fired after a quarrel and the discovery that he was planning to set up a rival firm. So neither of the two inventors of film shared Eastman’s later reputation as the true begetter of popular photography, a fame which he deserved, but more as promoter and manufacturer than as sole scientific discoverer.
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.
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.
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.
Without a wife and children or an active, participating role in his company’s work, Eastman needed other outlets for his energies, and he found them. He became a major benefactor of the city of Rochester, which he had given wealth and status beyond the dreams of even the most ambitious promoters. (“Wherever the photographic art is practiced,” a local newspaper beamed in 1898, “there Rochester is known. … As the purchaser turns to Pittsburgh for steel … and to Chicago for grain, so does he turn to Rochester for photographic goods.”) Eastman financed an orchestra, a theatre, a Municipal Bureau of Research, and a Chamber of Commerce building for his fellow townsmen and poured money into the modest University of Rochester, enabling it to add a distinguished medical school and a music conservatory and to upgrade itself dramatically in endowment. He also exerted a strong influence on Rochester’s political life. Overtly, he put his support in the 1920’s behind a conversion of the city’s government to a city-manager format (a businessmen’s and reformers’ dream of efficient, nonpartisan rule). What other pressures he and Kodak exerted are still shadowed. It is enough to say, however, that one associate recalled, after Eastman’s death, that he was the object of “near-hatred” to some Rochesterians who resented “the enormous control he exerted over his fellow citizens.” The sound of civic applause may have drowned out the hisses, but they were there.
Rochester, however, was not the limit of his philanthropic outreach. He gave away nearly seventy-five million dollars before his death. A large share of that sum went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (A modest as well as a generous giver, Eastman donated to M.I.T. for many years under the name “Mr. Smith.”) There were also generous benefactions to two Negro colleges, Hampton and Tuskegee, and to dental clinics in various cities of the world- a pet project, for some per- sonal reason. Merely keeping track of the projects financed by his gifts could have become a totally absorbing occupation in itself. But Eastman also found time to play, after his fashion, as befitted the man who had taught the country to picture itself at play. He was an inveterate hunter, roaming the world at the head of large parties of friends and servants and bringing back from Africa and other exotic places packing cases laden with skins and heads for the walls of his home. Naturally, there were always copious photographic records of such safaris, made by the best and latest equipment.
He owned houses and lands; he owned a great corporation; in a sense, he was an important partowner of the city of his rearing. Yet the report of everyone close to him was that he remained somewhat shy, content to ascribe his condition mostly to destiny, even slightly oppressed by a sense that he had a continuing responsibility to prove his usefulness to the world. He seemed to struggle against taking success or happiness for granted.
Sometime during 1931, when he was seventy-seven, Eastman began to suffer from a spinal ailment that threatened to make him a cripple. On March 14, 1932, he retired to an upstairs bedroom and, tidy to the end, neatly laid a folded towel over his chest and put a bullet through his heart. Beside him on a table was a note: “To my Friends: My work is done. Why wait?”
It was a lean, undemonstrative final farewell, in keeping with the style he had set himself. Perhaps the problem of his later life was that, in a sense, his work was already done by 1901, when the burdened but briskly moving days and nights of experiment and effort culminated in the great company that had created the camera that anyone—anyone at all—could buy, use, and enjoy. Perhaps the rest was only a comfortable twilight.