|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
Collecting Old Cameras
( Article orginally published March 1954 )
The hobby of collecting old camras has proved to be at once intersting, rewarding, and informative. mprovements have been carried hrough from the various parts of he first simple cameras to the accurate and highly complicated ones if the present day.The lens, the shutter, the view finder, bellows, form and size of box, the plates and film, each has been improved through a series of steps. This realization of progress is made vital by seeing the old cameras in different stages of photographic development.
For example, shutters on my earlier cameras were non-existent. The plates were exposed by uncapping and recapping the lens. Then came shutters of a type that cocked when the photographer pulled a string. This was on Eastman's first four Kodaks. A few years later shutters were made that had a small lever which when pulled to one side made the shutter ready for the exposure. Such arrangement is on Eastman's Pocket camera, last Patent date 1889.
Early cameras in my collection had no view finder. A card with a V line gave the taking angle of the lens. Gradual improvements produced the accurate view finders of today. We could continue this line of thought at the expense of other equally important considerations.
One such consideration is the human element. It has been a great pleasure to meet personally and talk to professional and amateur photographers who used some of these old cameras and equipment. Some of these men now in their 80's were rich in a knowledge and skill the modern photographer has never experienced.
Not only meeting these people near at hand, but receiving many lengthy letters from half a continent away about the photography of long ago and letters from others who, like myself, are collecting old cameras. Some have large collections, others beginners.
Many, like myself, enjoy the historical aspect. Mr. Taft's book Photography and the Amertcan Scene, and Mr. Jackson's The Picture Maker of the Old West are as entrancing as a novel.
It is fortunate that the camera accompanied the explorers of the West. In addition to regular photographs, these explorer-photographers made stereo views which soon after were found on most parlor tables beside the old stereoscope. Then, as in the years which followed, the camera has recorded the greatest era known to modern man.
These are some of the reasons the writer enjoys his modest collection of seventy or more cameras that are more than fifty years old. To mention some of the highlights in the growth of photography adds to a better understanding and pleasure of this interesting hobby.
As physics and chemistry developed, they evolved principles which caused photography rapidly to take shape. Discoveries by many men, too, laid the foundation. The process of making photographs was close to having been invented simultaneously by different men. That story alone would require a lengthy article. In this connection, we should mention these names: Wedgewood, Talbot, Nepce and Daguerre.
To simplify a rather complicated situation, let it be stated that photography was made a reality by both Talbot and Daguerre in 1839. Each worked independently of the other, and the resulting methods were entirely different. Daguerre's process, it seems, was the more popular, and the photographs made by his process were called Daguerreotypes.
A great many Daguerreotypes still exist and if their owners realized that they possessed Daguerreotypes they might not follow a common practice of taking them out of their cases and throwing them away in order to use the case for modern photos.
What were these Daguerreotypes like? Daguerreotypes were made on highly polished copper, mounted in black folding cases. As the Daguerreotypes required protection, they were covered with glass. Its mirror-like surface must receive light from the proper angle for the image to be plainly seen. You may have some and they deserve a better fate than being discarded. What was the Daguerreotype camera and the equipment like? The camera consisted of two boxes, with one end removed from first and both ends from the second. One box was telescoped into the other. A lens was on the front box, a mirror at an angle at the back, and ground glass at an angle to the mirror so that the camera could be focused.
Apparently later models had a door opening on top, with the ground glass inserted in the camera. The ground glass would be removed after the camera was focused and the plate holder inserted in its place. Space does not permit a description of preparing the copper plate and of the Daguerreotype process.
Fox Talbot's method was the paper negative of the calotype process. This was not so successful because the grain of the paper imposed itself upon the photograph.
Fredrick Scott Archer gave the world the collodion or wet plate process. The year was 1851 and the glass negative began to displace Daguerre's process. The wet plate process was sometimes called collodion process.
Collodion was a solution made of gun cotton, alcohol, and ether. This was poured over one side of a glass plate and the plate plunged into a silver nitrate solution. The plate was drained and immediatelv placed in a light tight holder and the exposure made and developed while the plate was still wet.
Although the process varied greatly from that of Daguerre the camera remained essentially the same. The plate holders were changed to use the wet, sensitized glass.
There was an invention of 1801 that did change the construction of cameras, for in that year the folding bellows was invented.
The camera that Disderi patented in 1855 had as its distinguishing feature four lenses instead of one. (See No. 3.) The photograph of this camera is from Eastman House. After the exposure was made the plate holder was moved so that four more exposures could be made on the same plate.
After the glass plate negative was printed; the eight photographs were cut apart. As they were the size of a visiting card, they were called carte-de-visite photographs.
All four exposures could be made at once or one at a time. Since many of these lenses did not have a shutter the exposures were sometimes made by covering and uncovering the lenses with the focusing cloth. One of these sets of lenses (Darlot's Paris) in the writer's collection has a shutter of walnut wood that opens and closes all four lenses simultaneously.
The carte-de-visite photographs were extremely popular and continued so until after the Civil War. The carte-de-visite photographs were also made on sheet iron and were called Ferreotypes, or as we know them, tintypes, were made directly upon the metal.
The demand for small photos was partly supplied by the Wing camera. It was constructed in such a manner that the lens traveled back and forth and up and down, making three rows of four exposures each, all twelve exposures on a 5x7 inch glass plate.
Throughout all this time little fundamental change was made in the cameras themselves, although the photographic processes and materials had changed.
From about 1880 on, things happened thick and fast. Up to this time, it must be remembered, to take photographs out of doors it was necessary to have not only the fairly large sized camera, but so much additional equipment that a cart or wagon drawn by horses to transport it, was the general rule. However, the change in the size of cameras but more essentially the change in negative materials lightened the load. It was now necessary to take the camera and plates only for dry plates were being manufactured.
It will be noted that both Daguerreotypes and Tintypes were a direct positive process, that is, made directly on the metal without the use of glass plate negatives. When dry plates were made available about 1880, the photographer could take photographs without the heavy bulky equipment to sensitize the plate. Only the camera and plates were used unless the photographer had a tripod.
To make a quick summary of negative material, the collodion wet plate process was invented in 1851; the dry plate was available in 1880; film, 1889; and roll film on spools, 1891.
These improvements gave the manufacturers a vision of cameras being widely used by the untrained photographers-that is, anyone who possessed a camera. Their efforts were immediately expended in that direction. Adams, employed by Scoville & Co., designed plate cameras for general use. Scoville made Adams a partner, and the firm became Scoville and Adams in 1887. In the writer's collection is one of their earliest cameras. It is 7 x 7 1/2 x 8 inches.
Eastman went a step farther, putting his first Kodak on the market in 1888. (No. 6.) It was small, being 3 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 6 inches. It held sufficient film covered paper (later sensitized celluloid film) to make 100 exposures, each 2 1/2 inches in diameter. The shutter was a cylinder with a rectangular opening and was cocked or wound by pulling a cat gut string, and was released by pressing a button which caused the cylinder to revolve one-half turn, making the exposure. There was no exposure counter but the problem was solved by a printed card with numbers from one to one-hundred. As the exposures were made, the corresponding number was checked off.
The camera had no view finder. On the back of the same card was printed two converging lines which corresponded to the taking angle of the lens. This card was placed on the camera with the bottom of the V toward the photographer. By sighting over these lines, the photographer could make an estimate of what would be included in the photograph. Later models had the converging lines imprinted on the top of the camera.
After the hundred exposures had been made, the loaded camera was sent to Eastman, where the negative was developed, the photos printed and mounted, the camera reloaded, and all was returned to the sender. The price of the service was $10. Their slogan was "You press the button, we do the rest."
The invention of the gelatin dry plate process and later film made it possible to make the exposures several months after the plate or film was manufactured and the development could take place quite some time after the exposure was made instead of immediate use and development as with wet plates. As stated before the necessary picture taking equipment was camera and dry plates or film.
Since cameras were not as common then as now, the manufacturers realized that the ones who owned them felt rather self concious or conspicuous as they carried them. This attitude had a great influence on camera design, for cameras were then made to appear as something else. These were called "detective cameras".
Some were made so that the lens was entirely within the box. Near the back of the camera was a door that opened, revealing the plate holder compartment.
The front part of this compartment was a ground glass. After the camera was focused the ground glass was removed and the plate holder put in place for the exposure (an arrangement much the same as that of the old Daguerreotype camera of forty or more years before). The view finder did not protrude above the camera. A leather handle was on top, and the camera resembled a doctor's medicine case.
These "detective cameras" were somewhat larger than the box cameras of today. They were also made to resemble a wrapped package, a small valise, a wooden box (No. 7.), etc. Some were cleverly arranged to use either film or plate holders without additional gadgets or special backs.
Miniature cameras came in vogue in the early nineties instead of much later as is generally believed. A pocket sized box camera was made by Eastman. Other miniature cameras took the form of watches. There were hat cameras, the small Kombi, revolver cameras, and opera glass cameras.
Our modern stereo or third dimension is merely a revival of the fad extending back further than our grandfathers' time. The principles of stereo were understood before the invention of photography. It was only a short time after the invention of photography that actual photographic stereo came into being.
The photographers that accompanied the different Western exploring expeditions took stereo lenses and cameras. They depended upon the sale of these stereo photographs to make their trip profitable, for a stereoscope was in every parlor and large companies printed views which sold by the thousands. T. H. O'Sullivan, W. H. Jackson, John K. Hilliers, James Fennemore, F. T. Haynes, John D. Hoffman, T. J. Hines are only a few of the early photographers who accompanied explorers. Brady and his photographers made stereos of Civil War scenes. When the first railways were built across the West, the railway companies sent out photographers to record landscapes, progress of work and events of interest.
Many regular cameras were converted into stereo cameras by using two lenses, spaced at the proper distance apart, and a partition through the center of the camera which prevented the two images from overlapping. Such a camera is the E. and H. T. Anthony. For the amateur, Eastman had a double box camera affair.
Included in my collection are a few Panorama cameras. These are hand cameras. The panorama is obtained by the camera remaining still while the lens which is fastened in the middle swings from side to side.
The film is arranged on a semicircular track and is exposed as the lens swings from one side to the other.
One of the early reflex cameras in the writer's collection was patented in 1902. The lever on the right front of the camera is pushed downward which lifts the mirror, and as soon as the mirror is raised, the lever trips the shutter. This early model is one of the forerunners of the great group of reflex cameras.
Readers discovering an old camera in the attic or in a trunk in the basement might not even recognize some of them as being a camera, for example, a circular camera, a watch camera with the lens hidden in the stem or the little Kombi which might be mistaken for a toy. The writer is greatly interested in these and their different variations as well as the duplication of types made by different manufacturers. A real collector will welcome duplicates. They are useful to swap for something a collector does not have when the wanted item may be a duplicate in another collection.
Remember also, if you find an old camera the accessories such as case, plate holders, etc., are important. With wet plate and Daguerreotype outfits, the camera is a small proportion of the complete picture taking requirement.
Yes, collecting old cameras is a great hobby. It has historical and mechanical interest and because only a few are now collecting old cameras the expense involved is not great. There are still a great many old cameras. Hunt for them!