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The American Experience

People & Events
The Kodak Camera Starts a Craze

The introduction of the Kodak camera of May 1888 was a dramatic event. Although it cost $25 (a great deal of money in those days, but less than the cost of wet-plate cameras), it was easy to use, as Eastman made clear with his advertising slogan: "You press the button, we do the rest."

And people did press the button. By August, Eastman was having trouble filling orders as Kodak cameras made their way into the public arena. President Grover Cleveland owned one, though he was apparently slow to learn to turn the key that advanced the film, as did the Dalai Lama, who took his with him when he left Tibet for the first time. Gilbert and Sullivan paid Eastman the ultimate compliment by immortalizing his product in song for the operetta "Utopia":

Then all the crowd take down our looks In pocket memorandum books. To diagnose Our modest pose The Kodaks do their best: If evidence you would possess Of what is maiden bashfulness You need a button press-- And we do the rest!

The appearance of Eastman's cameras was so sudden and so pervasive that the reaction in some quarters was fear. A figure called the "camera fiend" began to appear at beach resorts, prowling the premises until he could catch female bathers unawares. One resort felt the trend so heavily that it posted a notice: "PEOPLE ARE FORBIDDEN TO USE THEIR KODAKS ON THE BEACH." Other locations were no safer. For a time, Kodak cameras were banned from the Washington Monument. The "Hartford Courant" sounded the alarm as well, declaring that "the sedate citizen can't indulge in any hilariousness without the risk of being caught in the act and having his photograph passed around among his Sunday School children."

Hilariousness, however, was the key. Where the daguerreotype and its wet-plate successors had required stillness from their subjects, the Kodak camera was able to capture their spontaneity. So convincing were these new images of people that today it is difficult to believe that anyone had had any fun at all in the age of the daguerreotype.

Did the snapshot simply record emotions that had eluded cameras before, or did it actually change the way people felt about themselves? The question may be unanswerable in the end, but it is certainly true that the Kodak camera caught on America at exactly the moment when America was reaching new heights of liveliness. Everywhere, the tempo was picking up. The first automobiles were appearing on the streets. Telephones were beginning to grace the homes of ordinary citizens. Motion pictures, made possible partly through Eastman's contribution of celluloid film, were actually recording all this activity and then speeding it up in presenting it to viewers.

Of course, during this same time, the very embodiment of fun had also sprung up at the edge of New York City. Coney Island, famous for so many things, was a veritable photogenic heaven. Where once visitors there had to be content with the Camera Obscura Observatory (erected in 1883), they suddenly held the power of the images in their hands: snapshots on the Ferris Wheel, snapshots on the roller coasters, they could take snapshots almost anywhere.

In yet another example of serendipity, the Brownie camera, which brought the price of a Kodak camera down to a truly democratic dollar, was introduced in 1900, just as Coney Island was undergoing a postcard explosion. In 1898, with the improvement of printing techniques and the increase in transportation speeds, the cost of postcards were lowered from two cents to one, and postcards began to scatter from Coney Island at an astonishing rate: on a single day in September 1906, an astonishing 200,000 postcards were postmarked from Coney Island.

While the photographs on the Coney Island postcards were not, by and large, taken with Brownie cameras, they were nonetheless powerful emblems to their recipients, who saw for the first time how much fun photography could be. The twentieth century had arrived, and with it, the image of a smiling America.

written by David Lindsay

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