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Take A Kodak With You

April 2023
2min read

— George Eastman did

The scene was London’s Savoy Theatre on the evening of October 7, 1893, opening night of a new Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Utopia, Limited . On stage Nekaya and Kalyba, “very modest and demure” twin girls, were singing a duet:

For English girls are good as gold, Extremely modest (so we’re told)… To diagnose Our modest pose The Kodaks do their best: If evidence you would possess Of what is maiden bashfulness, You only need a button press— And we do all the rest.

Like many of W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics, this one reflected a very contemporary preoccupation—in this instance the Kodak craze, then rampant in Europe as well as America, the home of its originator, George Eastman. Born in upstate New York in 1854, Eastman at the age of twenty was a junior bookkeeper in a bank in Rochester. More significantly, he was a passionate amateur photographer and inventor who would become to the camera what Henry Ford would become to the automobile.

While photography had been practiced in this country since 1839, the bulkiness of the equipment and the complicated nature of the developing process strictly limited its appeal. As a young photographer, Eastman often carried up to seventy pounds of gear on his back; to take a picture he had to emulsify a fragile glass plate, expose it through the lens of his heavy camera, and—working fast before the emulsion dried—develop it under a hood. By 1885 he finally perfected a practicable gelatin-coated paper film that could be manufactured in rolls and packed inside a small camera. Within three years he had developed such a camera: small enough (3½ by 3¾ by 6½ inches) and light enough (twenty-two ounces) to be held in the hand. The operating instructions were extremely simple: 1. Point the camera; 2. Press the button; 3. Turn the key to position the next film frame; and 4. Pull the cord to recock the shutter. Not even a child could miss.

But Eastman knew it would take solid marketing and mass-production techniques to turn his ideas into gold. He named his camera Kodak—a short, catchy word that he coined himself and that was easy to pronounce in any language. He also developed the slogan paraphrased in Gilbert’s lyric: “You press the button, we do the rest.” Soon the Eastman Kodak Company was doing just that. For twenty-five dollars it was turning out a camera complete with leather case and loaded with a one-hundred-exposure roll of film; after the pictures were taken the customer could ship case and camera, with the exposed film still inside, to Rochester, where for an additional ten dollars the factory would develop the film and send back a set of prints, along with the freshly reloaded camera. By 1889 there were thirteen thousand Kodak owners, and Eastman’s staff was processing as many as 7,500 prints a day—all of them, until 1896, circular because of the shape of the image frame. By the turn of the century, when the Kodak Girl poster on page 48 appeared, a new folk art was thriving, and tens of thousands of Americans were heeding her advice and taking a Kodak with them wherever they went. Eastman set the example: he took the three photographs on page 49, probably on a trip abroad in 1889. And he was collecting many other photographs, amateur work that caught his eye.

The pictures on these two pages were among Eastman’s own favorites, taken by customers long forgotten, and are now in the collection of the George Eastman House, Rochester. They were duplicated for the company’s files from the hundreds of thousands of negatives sent in for developing. Little is known about the subjects or the photographers: though the company sold a little record book with its camera, few customers filled in the blanks faithfully. The scene at left center on the opposite page is labelled “Wagon train going west, Kingston, New York, 1888,” and the young lady at top right on the same page is identified as “Marion Sawyer, Easthampton, Massachusetts, 1890.” But no one knows where or when the train was wrecked or what beach the father and son below were exploring when a now-anonymous Kodak owner pressed the button and waited for Eastman to do the rest.

Carlo Davidson

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