In February 1900, Eastman Kodak premiered the Brownie camera. This simple cardboard-box camera revolutionized photography by making it accessible to ordinary people. The Brownie was invented by Canadian Frank A. Brownell, a cabinetmaker originally from Vienna, Ontario. Brownell had moved to Rochester, New York, for mechanical and woodworking employment opportunities, but it was his camera-making abilities that impressed George Eastman and led to his success. In the first year, 150 000 Brownies were shipped. A second model (appropriately called “No. 2 Brownie”) debuted in 1901 and was also extremely popular.
Often marketed to children and families, the camera’s name was a reference to the brownies (household fairy or sprites) in Palmer Cox’s comics. Cox was a Canadian author and illustrator from Granby, Quebec. He was most known for his comic characters—the Brownies—published in youth- and family-oriented books and magazines. The Brownie was a starter camera perfect for getting children interested in photography—and for increasing the chances of repeat business from those young photographers when they became adults.
This article was originally published in the February/March 2017 issue of Photo Life, available to subscribers for free in the digital archives.