Photography for Everyone

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Michael T. McGreevey Holding Brownie Camera at Ground Breaking Ceremony, 1901. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

Introduced in 1900, the Kodak Box Brownie boasted simple, straightforward usage at an affordable price. The first model was a cardboard box camera with a simple lens that printed on roll film. The camera was priced at just one dollar, which meant that many Americans could buy into the photography craze.

While previous camera ads had only been printed in professional and hobbyists journals, ads for Brownie Cameras were published in popular magazines along with a yearly advertising contest that encouraged both amateurs and professionals to participate. Throughout the early to mid-twentieth century, Kodak even engaged children through giveaways and other gimmicks (including debuting a line of Brownie cameras marketed at Boy Scouts), ensuring that youngsters became some of the camera’s most fervent users. Within the first year, Kodak sold over 150,000 Brownies. They would continue to offer new, innovative versions over the next several decades.

By the time Kodak celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1930, the American love affair with the camera was already in full swing. The popularity of the small, unassuming box that gave ordinary people the power to record their lives through images meant that history was now not only textual, but pictorial as well.