The First Century of the Disposable Camera, 1886-1986

The First Disposable Camera

One hundred years before Fujifilm introduced the first modern disposable to its Japanese market in 1986, the ophthalmologist Alexander Pope Whittell filed a patent for a “portable photographic apparatus.” During the second half of the nineteenth century, photography became less the preserve of the wealthy and more accessible to the average American. Historians attribute this expansion to technological developments, greater leisure time, and increased disposable income. Designed to be “within the understanding of any person of average ability,” Whittell’s single-use pinhole camera is an overlooked exemplar of what scholars call the  “democratization of photography.”

Front and back cover of the manual for the Ready Fotografer, Ready Fotografer Company, 1886.

Front and back cover of the manual for the Ready Fotografer, Ready Fotografer Company, 1886. Because of the camera’s light weight, users were warned to secure it when they took photographs, lest it blow away.

In his patent application, Whittell stated his intent to create an inexpensive, light-weight camera that was “ready for use at all times” and did not require focusing, so that the “amateur and inexperienced may by their use always obtain a good image.” The camera consisted of a dry plate, folding bellows made of paper, and a stiff front and back. The paper box would unfold like an accordion to allow light through an aperture, which would form an image on the plate. To extract the plate for development, users had to carefully cut through the paper, rendering the camera useless after a single photograph. Thus disposability, while not a selling point of the camera, was integral to Whittell’s goal of making “Photography simple and popular.” Asking inexperienced photographers to buy a more durable, reloadable camera would have meant asking them to not only pay more, but also to step beyond their skill level.

To manufacture and sell his invention, Whittell founded The Ready Fotografer Company in San Francisco in 1886. At a time when hand-held cameras cost more than 50 dollars, the camera sold for 25 cents. In the twenty-four-page instruction manual that accompanied the Ready Fotografer, Whittell addressed users who had never before operated a camera. While he included instructions that were specific to the Ready Fotografer, he also included advice on how to take pleasing photographs using any camera. Whittell proudly proclaimed his commitment to democratizing photography and applying the concept of disposability to make photography “within the reach of every one’s purse and ability.”

The Invention of Film

The Ready Fotografer seems to have enjoyed limited success. Introduced in 1886, it was almost certainly not being sold by the time of Whittell’s death in 1893. But shortly after Whittell began manufacturing his camera, the expansion of photography took another great leap with the invention of roll film by Kodak. In 1888, the KODAK camera entered the market. Cheap, light, and blaring the slogan, “You push the button, we do the rest,” the early Kodak box cameras and the aggressive advertising campaign that went with them succeeded in making photography a mainstream hobby in the United States.

Despite this change in technology, experiments in applying disposability to photography continued. In 1916, Harold Percy Moxon of Binghamton, NY patented a “film-packed camera” that could be loaded with a single roll of film at a low price. Moxon devised the camera so that single frames were moved from the roll into the field of exposure, and then from the field of exposure into a compartment within the camera’s cardboard casing. Like the Ready Fotografer, the camera would have to be destroyed in order to extract the film. There is, however, no indication that Moxon’s invention was ever manufactured.

Turning “Uncle Sam’s Mailboxes into Darkrooms”: The Post-WWII Era

The idea of disposable cameras languished until the years immediately after World War II. With greater disposable income, increased travel and leisure time, and the baby boom taking place, the post-war era was a watershed moment in the history of photography.  By 1950, 70 percent of households owned a camera; only 63 percent owned telephones. Within a decade of the close of the war, four companies went into business manufacturing disposable cameras, looking to capitalize off of Americans’ spiked interest in photography.

Picture Box camera. Picture Box Manufacturing Company, ca. 1950. George Eastman House.

Picture Box camera. Picture Box Manufacturing Company, ca. 1950. George Eastman House.

The first disposable camera entrepreneur of this era was Frederick Bierhorst of New Orleans. Bierhorst established the Picture Box Manufacturing Company in 1948 after filing a patent for a camera, “of simple construction, inexpensive to manufacture, and easy to operate,” that would be sold loaded with a roll of film. Made of cardboard, this camera, like its predecessors, had to be destroyed to gain access to the exposed film. It was sold in bright orange packaging with the slogan “The World’s Most Convenient Camera,” and looked very much like a novelty item.

Bierhorst’s days as president of his small company appear to have been short-lived. Unfortunately though logically, not many Picture Boxes have survived, and the product is sparsely documented. A contemporary of the Picture Box, the disposable Photo-Pac, on the hand left a larger impression. The Photo-Pac, which resembles the Picture Box to a striking degree, was the brainchild of Alfred D. Weir, a mechanical engineer from Dallas. Having found himself too many times in situations where he wished he had a camera, Weir designed a single-use camera made of cardboard and plastic. Business Week described Weir’s marketing strategy as two-pronged: “The Photo-Pac Camera Mfg. Co. is basing its marketing strategy on two irrefutable ideas: (1) that people who don’t own cameras often wished they did, and (2) that people who do own cameras often, forgetfully, leave them at home.” Yet there was clearly a third group of people Weir targeted, those for whom the phrase “the new, easy, lazy, way to get the snapshots you want” would appeal. With no focal adjustments necessary, all users had to do was “sight, shoot, and mail” the 35 mm camera back to Photo-Pac. The company would take the camera apart, extract the film, process it, and mail the prints back to their owner.

A.D. Weir and Photo-Pac camera featured in Mechanix Illustrated, September 1949.

A.D. Weir wins $50 for his “prize gadget,” the Photo-Pac camera. Mechanix Illustrated, September 1949.

Weir appears to have debuted his invention at the Texas State Fair in 1948, where at 98 cents it was described as a “fast-seller on site.”  By 1950, Weir had improved the Photo-Pac’s capabilities from eight to twelve exposures, which increased the price to $1.49. He spent that year working to get the product into drug stores, cigar shops, novelty stores, resort concession stands, and newsstands. In June 1950, Photo-Pac cameras landed on the shelves of Gimbels department store in New York City, and a month later at the Bon Marché in Lowell, MA. Weir picked up an accolade when Fawcett’s Inventor’s Handbook named the Photo-Pac one of the “15 Winning Ideas of the Year.” Despite the attention it received, Weir’s company does not seem to have survived the early 1950s.

Whereas the manufacturers of the Picture Box and the Photo-Pac embraced their products’ status as novelty items, the obscure Encore Camera Company of Hollywood, CA sought to market higher-end disposable cameras. Eschewing bright colors and graphics, the paper casings of the Encore Camera and its successors, the Encore De Luxe and Hollywood Camera, were designed to mimic leather or lizard-skin. Introduced around 1950, these snap-and-mail disposables seem to have been aimed at users who were more appearance-conscious and perhaps also more class-conscious than the typical purchaser of the Picture Box or Photo-Pac.

Hollywood Camera. Hollywood Camera Co. circa. 1950. Courtesy of Jamie Thomas.

Hollywood Camera with packaging and order forms. Hollywood Camera Co. ca. 1950. Courtesy of Jamie Thomas.

Photography researcher Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr. points out that Encore Cameras frequently were used as promotional items by airlines, banks, and other high-end consumer-oriented operations. Demonstrating to users that they did not have to sacrifice style for price, these cameras likely would have spoken to photographers who took their snapshots seriously, and may have worked to dispel any doubt that a throwaway camera could take quality photographs.

Disposable Photography Meets the Plastics Revolution

Early manufacturers of disposable cameras were more likely to stay in business longer if they produced reusable parts. This especially holds true for Beaurline Industries of St. Paul, MN, which manufactured disposable cameras from its establishment in 1951 through to the early 1970s. At the time of the company’s incorporation, Arthur W. Beaurline was already a wealthy and respected entrepreneur, having made his fortune in the transportation industry. Beaurline’s patent application, filed in 1951, acknowledged the existence of single-use cameras like the Photo-Pac. However, Beaurline had found a way to reduce the price of the camera even more and boost its durability, by making it entirely out of plastic. The polystyrene camera was also entirely reusable.

Imp camera. Beaurline Industries, ca. 1951. Disposable Camera Museum.

In 1951, the company introduced its first camera, the Imp, named in the vein of the classic Kodak Brownie and Conley Kewpie. More than just in name, the Imp recalled the days of older, simpler cameras in its advertising. An article in a 1953 issue of Industrial Marketing commented upon this strategy: “With the novice finding himself flanked on all sides with new and intricate technical developments, one company moved toward the simplification of picture-making.” At $1.79 for twelve exposures on 35 mm film, the Imp was not just an inexpensive camera, it was a camera that intentionally harked back to photography’s roots, when photography (rightly or wrongly) was perceived as being less complicated. In an apparent move to give the disposable camera more legitimacy and separate it from its whimsical beginnings, Beaurline gave the name  “The Pro” to the second generation of the Imp. Capable of twelve exposures, it sold for 3 dollars, plus a 1 dollar charge for processing.  Beaurline Industries continued after its founder’s death in 1968, eventually releasing the Mini-Mate disposable camera, the first disposable camera offered in color, in the early 1970s.

Around the time Beaurline Industries made its exit, Technicolor Inc. threw its hat into the ring, introducing the disposable Techni-Pak camera in 1972. Made in Hong Kong, the Techni-Pak was the first disposable to feature variable exposure stops. The focus-free, 35 mm camera took twenty color photographs and included aperture settings for “bright” and “cloudy.” Like the Beaurline cameras, its major selling point was its ease of use. The Techni-Pak was described as the “camera for people who love pictures but hate complicated cameras.” A snap-and-mail disposable, it was designed so that only Technicolor agents could extract the film. Reusable, a reloaded Techni-Pak was returned to users with their printed photographs.

Illustration of Techni-Pak from an advertisement for J.M. Fields department store, Rome Daily Sentinel, 1975 August 15.

Illustration of  the Techni-Pak camera from an advertisement for J.M. Fields department store, Rome Daily Sentinel, 15 August 1975.

On the eve of the 1987 announcement that Kodak and Fujifilm would be releasing disposable cameras, there seems to have been one model still enjoying some level of popularity. In 1973, a Canadian company introduced the 16 mm color Lure, which was sold in the United States as the Love after 1975. Capable of twelve exposures, the Love included a mount for Magicube flashbulbs. Users advanced the film in the camera by rotating the mount. Although a contemporary of the Techni-Pak, the Love was not built with reusability in mind. In order for the film to be processed, the camera had to be “cracked open like a walnut.”

Love camera, Lure Camera, Ltd., circa. 1975. Courtesy of Mark Dalzell.

Love camera with packaging and order forms. Lure Camera, Ltd., ca. 1975. Courtesy of Mark Dalzell.

The early success of the Love camera, which was sold in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Italy, dried up by the late 1970s. When Nuno Caplan, the president of the Brazilian firm Sonora Industrial, offered to buy the company in 1981 after encountering a Love in a Miami pharmacy, his offer was accepted. Over the next few years, Caplan’s engineers improved the design, keeping in mind that the camera’s users would most likely be “shutterbugs who cannot tell an f-stop from an ASA reading.” The Brazilian businessman did a commendable job rescuing the Love and seeing in disposable cameras a bright future, but Kodak and Fuji–it turned out–had bigger plans.

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