My grandma’s family album contains many photos such as this one of the younger folks in 1917.

A lot of the pictures are quite large and are obviously enlargements of the original camera negative.

The camera which took these photos was a very good one for the time, and I believe it must have belonged to my grandmother’s Uncle Weston – a dentist and nutritional scientist. But what sort of camera was it? Let’s play detective.

There are a couple of things we can infer from the start:

  1. Judging from the how it was put to use, this was a compact camera for the time. Most of the pictures are snapshots taken at either the ancestral farm in Camden or at Uncle Weston’s rustic lodge near Bon Echo, on Mazinaw Lake.
  2. There is overwhelming probability it was a Kodak camera. Kodak was the dominant domestic and international brand in the early 20th century. The Germans were making and selling optical parts but they hadn’t really begun to sell cameras in the US. The Japanese hadn’t even got started yet, except in lenses.
    There are some photos in grandma’s album dating from ca. 1910 which are smaller – about the size of a print straight from the negative. These are 6 X 11 cm (2.5 X 4.25 inches) That corresponds to prints made from Kodak 116 film. Kodak camera model 1A used type 116.
  3. This was a Kodak Special model. George Eastman believed in selling cheap hardware and making his money on renewables (sort of like the modern computer printer manufacturer.) But he did have a line of expensive cameras called Special. These had the latest materials like aluminum and Bakelite to reduce weight. They also featured imported shutters and Zeiss designed lenses made under license by Bausch and Lomb in Rochester.
    The lenses corrected for astigmatism much as today’s eyeglasses do and gave a sharper image, allowing more light to enter the camera. A Special camera cost upwards of $50 in 1910 or close to $1500 in today’s money. Only someone as successful as Weston Price could afford one.

So based on the above I would guess that Uncle Weston had a Kodak Special 1A folding camera. It took pictures like this:

Even with the expensive hardware, it wasn’t easy to be a 1910 photographer. In spite of the advanced lens design, a Zeiss Anastigmat f/6.3 was a slow optic and combined with slow black and white roll film needed a lot of light for best results. There was no flash, the shutter speeds were quite long – the fastest speed was 1/100 sec. You could use a tripod indoors and take longer exposures I suppose. Or possibly stand the camera on a table.

There was a rudimentary rangefinder but all that did was show you what you could get in the picture. You had to set the aperture and shutter speed based on a rough ambient lighting estimate – no light meter. The focus was done by moving the lens assembly back and forth on the rails according to a distance scale. Then you cocked the shutter with one lever and released it with another. After that, you cranked ahead to the next exposure. You got 8 images on a film roll. Hopefully, they turned out. Some obviously did.

Whether Uncle Weston had the same camera from 1909 until 1920 is unknown. His pictures got clearer and brighter as time went on – but that could have been because of improved film technology as much as from improved optics. Kodak didn’t change the basic folding camera design until the 1930s – although they did introduce another 1A “Autographic” Special model in 1914. Maybe Uncle Weston just got more experienced as a photographer.

I find these images remarkable – for their quality, the effort that went into making them, their longevity, and the way the bring my long dead Victorian aunts back to their youth.

I wonder if Uncle Weston would ever have dreamt that 100 years after he took these photos a future descendant would treasure them and try to figure out what equipment he used to make them. Ah, probably not. Life in 1910 was lived one day at a time – just as it is today.