What do you think of when you hear the word “brownie”? Yeah, I know, most people think of the delectable chocolate dessert. If I were to ask the same question to a group of people in the early 1900s – though presumably it would be through carrier pigeon rather than the internet – most would say that a Brownie is a popular inexpensive film camera. Are you confused? Take a look at the photograph below.
Believe it or not, this was a very popular camera in the early 1900s. The slogan “you push the button, we do the rest” was coined in order to convince people that photography no longer had to be a difficult medium. You could simply buy a camera, push a button, and create tangible memories. This camera introduced the “snapshot” into the photographic world; since taking photographs was so easy, people didn’t have to plan out each photograph as much as they used to.
The first Brownie was introduced by Kodak in 1900, and was a basic cardboard box with a simple lens that used roll film. You could even load the film in broad daylight! Kodak would even develop the film for you! These vintage advertisements for Kodak’s Brownie camera show that the invention of this camera made photography widely accessible. If it’s so simple to use that even a school-boy or girl can use it, then surely every household should own one! For less than $2, anyone could buy the camera, buy a roll of film, and get the film processed. Phew! A roll of film plus processing these days costs roughly $10, and that’s on the cheaper side of things (not to mention the fact that the price of $10 certainly doesn’t include a camera as well).
Kodak sold over 1000 Brownie cameras in the first year alone. Whereas photography was once viewed as something for the professionals and only at special events, the Brownie made it possible for every single household to own a camera and document the mundane tasks of their everyday lives. The photographs below were taken with a classic Brownie camera. Though they didn’t have the same sharp focus and detail made with medium and large format cameras, people still enjoyed the ability to photograph anything they wanted.
The Brownie was the beginning of modern day photography as we know it now; without this huge step in photography the snapshot would have never been invented and cameras would still be strictly for the professionals. Memories would have to be created in different ways, and photographs of people’s families wouldn’t adorn the mantelpiece. In the age of the Brownie, no one would believe you if you told them that digital cameras would become the camera of choice in every household. Actually, they wouldn’t even believe you if you tried to describe what a digital camera is. If someone were to come to you from the future and describe what photography is going to be like in 50 or 100 years, what do you think they’d say? We’re in a time where technological advancements are coming from every direction; it’s hard to say what the future holds for photography, but it’s important to understand the history.