The potential of plastic is realised by a tiny Bakelite box.
In 1934, emerging technology and the nascent profession of industrial design gave birth to a camera that was made affordable to more people than ever before.
Why is the Kodak Baby Brownie a Landmark Camera?
1: Eastman Kodak’s first synthetic plastic camera.
Plastic is currently the bogeyman material of the modern world. This group of materials has been through cycles of peaks and troughs in popularity since its inception. In our time, single use plastic and its thoughtless disposal has rendered plastic a bad reputation, but this has not always been the case.
Bakelite, in particular, the first synthetic plastic, promised and delivered; first as an electrical insulator and laminate, and from the late 1920’s onwards in many consumer goods such as pipe stems, radio cabinets, thermos flasks and of course cameras.
Polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycolanhydride, or Bakelite if you prefer
Starting in the late 1920s Bakelite, made from phenol and formaldehyde, began to be used for the manufacture of cameras. Freed from the restraint of its inventor’s patent (Leo Baekeland) which expired in 1927, camera makers explored the possibilities of this thermosetting polymer, formally named polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycolanhydride (chemical formula (C6H6O-CH2OH)n.). As a thermosetting polymer, Bakelite strengthened when cured and make chemical bonds that mean it cannot be melted again and recycled.
Up until the start of the Second World War, Bakelite (or more appropriately phenol formaldehdye to use its non-brand name) was the only polymer in town for camera making. When peace came, new polymers were applied to peacetime use and began to oust Bakelite in consumer products.
Not quite first
The Kodak Baby Brownie is often thought to be Kodak’s first plastic camera, but it was in fact beaten by several years by the Kodak Hawkette No.2, produced by Kodak Ltd in England. The Hawkette was made of brown Bakelite with a wood like effect and was basically playing the imitation game; a plastic version of a traditional folding strut camera. But the Kodak Baby Brownie was Eastman Kodak’s first all American plastic camera.
Walter Dorwin Teague
The styling of the camera was by Walter Dorwin Teague, an established industrial designer who had already styled several cameras for Kodak, including the beautiful and colourful Vanity Kodaks and the Mondrian inspired Gift Kodaks. With a long career in advertising, Teague understood the growing importance of the application of design to machined, mass produced, branded products. Good design inspired by European modernism potentially offered hard pressed businesses a way to navigate through the Great Depression.
The streamlining phenomenon
Whereas the Gift Kodaks, Six-20 and Six-16 Kodaks were of angular and decorative Art Deco designs, the Baby Brownie followed the parallel design trend for streamlining, a true American innovation. This trend emerged from research into wind resistance in fast moving vehicles in the late 1920’s. Cars, trains and aeroplanes appeared with streamlined exteriors, allowing better airflow, higher speeds and increased efficiency. The style was also applied to buildings. The look greatly appealed to the public and streamlining began to be applied to consumer products.
What makes this American camera significant is that the design is sympathetic to the material. Bakelite items were compression moulded; Bakelite moulding powder was squeezed in moulds under high pressure and heat, liquifying the powder. The straight lines and rounded corners allowed the liquid Bakelite to flow into every part of the mould. Its box shape maximised the strength of Bakelite while minimising its weaker one; brittleness.
The Baby Brownie was an incredibly successful camera; Kodak apparently sold 4 million of them. It was trendy, fun, innovative, and above all, cheap. The Great Depression era busting Baby sold for just $1 at its introduction in 1934. That’s the same price as the original Brownie of 1900.
The Kodak Baby Brownie In Use
So what’s the Baby Brownie like to use today? Well, it’s still a brilliant little fun camera! Part of its appeal is simplicity; with fixed focus, a single aperture and shutter speed, the photographer only has to frame their image with the flip-up aluminium finder and move the rotary shutter by pushing the lever underneath the lens to the left.
The Baby Brownie uses 127 film, loaded by twisting a catch on the bottom of the camera to divide the camera into two parts. This twist feature to open and close the camera is something I have not seen on earlier cameras.
The simple, meniscus lens of 60 mm focal length takes surprisingly sharp images in the centre in an aspect ratio of 6.5 x 4; 8 to a roll of film. Film advance is by a small aluminium dial with the proverbial red celluloid window to count frames on the rear of the camera.
Testament to this phenolic box’s enduring appeal, is its remarkably long manufacturing life. It was made in America from July 1934 until 1941. After a break of seven years, manufacturing recommenced in England in 1948, and finally stopped in 1952. The models made in England were for export only and included a small silver button above the lens which was a self timer. This feature is quite rare as it was only included after 1951.
Photographs taken with the Kodak Baby Brownie
I made these five photographs made with the Baby Brownie in Durham City. Anything away from the centre of the frame starts to look distorted, so the images with most interest in the centre work better. This is a one dollar snapshot camera after all!