|Camera Anatomy - Box Cameras|
The principle feature of a box camera is, well... it's a box! The front will have an opening with a lens and a shutter, which may be in front or behind the lens itself. These are generally the simplest and cheapest of cameras and most had few controls. The Ensign E29 used to illustrate the breed here has a simple rotary shutter in front of the lens. Controls are limited to Instant shutter (roughly 1/25th sec.) or Timed shutter which stays open for as long as the lever is held down. Most box cameras are roll film type without any focus control as the lens delivers reasonably sharp pictures from 12ft to infinity, which covers most peoples' requirements. For those occasions when a closer focus is needed a supplementary lens could be fitted (as here in fact) and this would alter the focus according to the strength of the supplementary lens used. Whilst the E29 is representative of this type of camera, there are variations. The advantage of the simple box camera was that it was cheap to buy and easy to operate, at the expense of flexibility - they were generally only meant to be used outdoors in bright conditions. But, whilst not heavy, they were large and inconvenient to carry around.
Kodak ought to be credited with the invention and popularizing the box camera. George Eastman, Kodak's founder, knew nothing of photography and when he first encountered it in the late 1870s, was put off by the complexity. In those days, the commonly used "wet plate" process was unwieldy and required great expertise - it also required the photographic plate to be coated, exposed and processed whilst still wet, hence the term "wet plate". This also meant that the budding photographer had to carry a mobile darkroom with them, a far from convenient system. Rather than give up, George set about discovering all he could about the art and in due course learned of the new embryonic "dry plate" that enabled photographic plates to be made and stored, ready to be used later. George learned the method and subsequently started making his own plates. This is where George Eastman's innovative and inventive mind really excelled, for he invented a machine that could coat the plates consistently and evenly. By 1879 he'd filed a patent in England for the machine and in 1880 started manufacturing photographic plates commercially in Rochester, New York, becoming the Eastman Dry Plate Company in 1881. George Eastman's drive was really to make photography as easy and accessible as possible, partly out of his own disappointment earlier, but mainly because he was an extremely shrewd businessman. George's 1884 innovation, and revelation, was to produce a paper film in rolls - together with a device enabling the film to be used in currently available plate cameras. This lead to the first Eastman box camera in 1888, simply called the "Kodak". Recognizably a box camera, it was a wooden box, with a barrel shutter and came pre loaded with enough paper based film to make 100 circular images. Once the user had exposed the film, they sent it back to Eastman, who processed the images, reloaded the camera and returned them - thereby making photography accessible to anyone who could afford the $25 outlay for the initial film and camera and $10 for each subsequent process. George Eastman had delivered on his advertising promise "You press the button, we do the rest". In time the film and cameras evolved, but all subsequent humble and unpretentious box cameras and the millions of images we have to hand down through the generations owe their existence to George Eastman.
Visit these examples to see some of the variations.
© Living Image Vintage Cameras 2000-2021