Take your own pictures, without the unwieldy “pack-horse load” of equipment of the glass-plate negative age. That was George Eastman’s promise in 1888, when his Kodak Company introduced a 3-by-4-by-6 1/2-inch box camera. The Kodak’s steep $25 price tag made it a plaything for the rich, but Eastman was selling more than the latest technology. He was selling the idea that anyone who could aim the box in the right direction and push a button could capture their own milestone moments. The Kodak came preloaded with enough film for 100 pictures. After 100 snaps, the entire camera was mailed to the company’s Rochester, N.Y., factory, where the film was developed and prints were made. Then the camera was reloaded and returned to the customer. Kodak quickly produced cheaper and more user-friendly cameras; by 1896 the company was churning out 400 miles of film and photo paper a month to meet demand. The Hartford Courant warned that folks indulging in “any hilariousness” risked “being caught in the act,” but the candid snapshot was here to stay. In 1900 Kodak launched the camera that came to define fun family photography: the $1 Brownie.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here