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Tuesday, February 1, 2000

A Camera Reaches 100

A Brief History of George Eastman and the Kodak Brownie.


[Editor’s note, February 1, 2020: This article was originally published on February 1, 2000—the centennial anniversary of the camera’s inception. Another article by author Lawrence W. Reed—published on February 2, 2004—is available here, which celebrated the convergence of George Eastman’s technology with that of modern cell phones.]

This month marks a centennial anniversary that deserves to be noted. It was 100 years ago, in February 1900, that George Eastman first introduced the Kodak Brownie box camera. The price tag was one dollar; film sold for 15 cents a roll. Eastman was about to do for cameras what Steve Jobs would do for computers almost eight decades later. For the first time, taking pictures was within the reach of almost every American family.

Whether you’re a camera buff or not, you probably have seen and perhaps have even used a Brownie. Nowadays, they show up at rummage sales and antique shows, but I can remember when they were still widely used in my childhood days during the 1950s. They were simple to operate and took great pictures.

Pictured above is Larry Reed with his Brownie in 1960.

The Brownie not only ushered in the era of modern photography; it was also a genuine cultural phenomenon in America. Millions were sold. Thousands of American youngsters signed up as members of The Brownie Camera Club and entered Kodak photo contests. Men and women who went on to become famous photographers got their start with Eastman’s little invention.

Student of Photography

The man who gave us the Brownie camera was no stranger to photography in 1900. In the 1870s, when Eastman was in his twenties and picture-taking wasn’t much older, what would become the passion of his life started out as a hobby. In 1871 at the age of 17, he bought almost a hundred dollars’ worth of photographic equipment and hired a photographer to instruct him in the art. He read everything he could find on the subject and with a backpack and a wheelbarrow, he hauled his equipment everywhere he wanted to capture an image.

Cameras in the 1870s were as big as microwave ovens. The tools of the professional photographer’s trade—including a bulky, unreliable camera, a tripod, and various liquid chemicals—were more than a single man could carry, “a pack-horse load,” as Eastman described it. He resolved to downsize, simplify, and reduce the cost of the “burden” of taking pictures.

This genius who had dropped out of school at the age of 13 went on to build an extraordinarily successful business.

Though he lived his entire life in the area where he was born—upstate New York—Eastman traveled widely. He once visited Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where he set up his camera equipment to take photos of the natural bridge, a stone landmark. A crowd of gawking tourists gathered, assuming Eastman would take their pictures and offer the photos for sale. When he informed them he was making pictures for his own purposes and not for sale, a disappointed tourist chewed him out: “Then why did you let us stand in the hot sun for a full half-hour while you fooled around with your contraptions! You ought to wear a sign saying that you are an amateur!”

Eastman experimented endlessly and discovered new techniques and processes for producing better film and lighter, less expensive cameras. A self-taught chemist, he ended the era of sloppy, wet-plate photography by inventing a process that used dry chemicals, though not without many disappointments. His Eastman Dry Plate Company almost went bankrupt in the 1880s, in spite of his hard work and sleepless nights. But in America’s golden age of invention, when taxes were low and rewards for persistence were often great, this genius who had dropped out of school at the age of 13 went on to build an extraordinarily successful business.

Praise from the Pros

Professional photographers praised the pioneering work of Eastman. They called his prints and negatives “the best dry plate work on the market.” Journals and newspapers began publishing articles about his inventions. In 1929, when Eastman met Thomas Edison for the first time, each of the elderly men revealed they had purchased a product made by the other as early as the 1880s. “Pretty good film,” Edison told Eastman.

By 1888, Eastman had simplified the camera into a small, easily held box measuring three and three-quarter inches high, three and a quarter inches wide, and six and a half inches long. He needed a name for it, a catchy trademark that could be easily pronounced and spelled. “K” was his favorite letter because, he said, it was “a strong, incisive sort of letter.” After toying with various combinations of letters, he hit on one that rang some sort of internal bell in his mind, “Kodak.” But the first Kodak camera, priced at $25 when it debuted in 1888, was still unaffordable for most Americans.

If, as the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words, then the story of George Eastman and the Kodak Brownie is worth 70 trillion words.

Eastman and his team of expert craftsmen worked feverishly to cut costs and improve quality. The result was a camera that would reach people, in Eastman’s words, “the same way the bicycle has reached them”—the Kodak Brownie. It took the world by storm. The first run of 5,000 cameras flew off the shelves and orders piled up at an amazing pace that exceeded the most optimistic projections. Even corner drugstores were selling them.

A new term was coined during a 1905 trial to describe the millions of people caught up in the craze: “Kodak freaks.” In her biography of George Eastman, Elizabeth Bayer quotes the court transcript, which read, “Wherever they go, and whomever they see, and whatever place they have come to, they have got to have a Kodak along for the purpose of getting pictures.” In 1904, reports Bayer, when the Dalai Lama fled from his Tibetan palace, he took his Brownie with him.

Eastman inspired great loyalty among his employees, in large measure because of what biographer Bayer notes were “his countless acts of kindness, his enlightened personnel policies, and his tireless working habits.” He was an American original—a self-made man whose dreams and commitment have made the everyday lives of generations of people happier by allowing moments of those lives to be captured on film.

The estimated 70 billion pictures Americans alone will take this year are the direct descendants of the Kodak Brownie, the first mass-produced camera in history. Its creator was a superb businessman as well as a talented inventor, and became one of America’s wealthiest citizens. He gave away more than $100 million to universities and charities before his death in 1932.

If, as the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words, then the story of George Eastman and the Kodak Brownie is worth 70 trillion words.


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.