Learn How the Brownie Camera Changed Photography Forever

How Eastman Kodak Changed the Future of Photography

A picture of a girl using a Brownie camera.
A girl taking a photograph with a Kodak box Brownie camera (circa 1935). (Photo by Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The next time you point your smartphone at a sunset, snap a group of friends on a night out or position yourself just so for a selfie, you might want to give silent thanks to George Eastman. Not that he invented the smartphone or the myriad social media sites to which you can instantly post your images. What he did do was set in motion the democratization of a pastime that prior to the turn of the 20th century was solely reserved for professionals well-trained in the use of heavy large-format cameras. 

In February of 1900, Eastman's company, Eastman Kodak, introduced a low-priced, point-and-shoot, hand-held camera, called the Brownie. Simple enough for even children to use, the Brownie was designed, priced, and marketed in order to bolster the sale of roll film, which Eastman had recently invented, and as a result, make photography accessible to the masses. 

Snapshots From a Small Box

Designed by Eastman Kodak's camera designer Frank A. Brownell, the Brownie camera was little more than a simple black rectangular cardboard box covered in imitation leather with nickeled fittings. To take a "snapshot," all one had to do was pop in a cartridge of film, close the door, hold the camera at waist height, aim it by looking through the viewfinder at the top, and turn a switch. Kodak claimed in its advertisements that the Brownie camera was "so simple they can easily [be] operated by any school boy or girl." Though simple enough for even children to use, a 44-page instruction booklet accompanied every Brownie camera. 

Affordable and Easy to Use

The Brownie camera was very affordable, selling for only $1 each. Plus, for only 15 cents, a Brownie camera owner could buy a six-exposure film cartridge that could be loaded in daylight. For an extra 10 cents a photo plus 40 cents for developing and postage, users could send their film to Kodak for development, eliminating the need to invest in a darkroom and special equipment and materials—much less learn how to use them.

Marketed to Children

Kodak heavily marketed the Brownie camera to children. Its ads, which ran in popular magazines rather than just trade journals, also included what would soon become a series of popular Brownie characters, elf-like creatures created by Palmer Cox. Children under the age of 15 were also urged to join the free Brownie Camera Club, which sent all members a brochure on the art of photography and advertised a series of photo contests in which kids could earn prizes for their snapshots.

The Democratization of Photography

In just the first year after introducing the Brownie, the Eastman Kodak Company sold over a quarter of a million of its little cameras. However, the small cardboard box did more than just help make Eastman a rich man. It forever changed the culture. Soon, handheld cameras of all sorts would hit the market, making possible vocations like photojournalist and fashion photographer, and giving artists yet another medium with which to express themselves. These cameras also gave everyday people an affordable, accessible way to document the important moments of their lives, whether formal or spontaneous and preserve them for future generations.