Cool Cameras: The Univex Mercury

January 5th, 2011

Today’s guest blogger is camera collector John Kratz, whose Flickr page is a thing of beauty. John has posted a number of his cameras on Show & Tell, too.

The Universal Camera Corporation found great success in the early/mid-1930s by selling very inexpensive cameras and film. By the late ’30s, however, the camera-buying public was increasingly interested in high-end imports such as the Leica and Contax lines—the simple plastic still cameras offered by Universal up to that point were no competition.

Universal rectified the matter in October of 1938 with the release of the Univex Mercury (Model CC). Cast from an aluminum alloy and covered with leather, the Mercury was not only unlike anything Universal had offered before, it was actually a revolutionary achievement in the industry. I won’t go into all the features, but two are worth noting: First was the unique rotary shutter (responsible for the circular protrusion on top of the camera), capable of extremely accurate speeds up to 1/1000th of a second. Second, the Mercury was the first camera to have internal flash synchronization, known today as the hot shoe.

German-made cameras from Leitz and Zeiss were selling for hundreds of dollars, making the American-made Mercury a very appealing alternative at a mere $25. Nonetheless, producing America’s fastest candid camera did not satisfy Universal, as the Contax II claimed a shutter speed of 1/1250. Thus, in June of 1939, Universal introduced the Mercury Model CC-1500, named after its top shutter speed.

For collectors, the CC-1500 is a rare find, as only an estimated 3,000 were manufactured, compared to approximately 45,000 of the standard Mercury Model CC. The example pictured above is equipped with a Wollensak f/3.5 Tricor lens, and sold new in 1939 for $29.75. The camera was also available with a Hexar f2.0 lens (rare today), an option that more than doubled the price of the outfit to a whopping $65!

The Mercury II (Model CX), above, was a postwar reincarnation of the Mercury I, manufactured beginning around 1945. Universal Camera Corp. suspended its normal camera-making operations during World War II in order to produce binoculars for the armed forces. By the time the war ended and Universal resumed camera production, the company had decided to revamp the popular Mercury in order to allow it to accept standard 35mm film rolls, as opposed to the special Univex #200 film required for the Mercury I. This required new dies, resulting in the Mercury II being about a quarter-inch longer and taller than the Mercury I.

Aside from the addition of the rewind knob and other obvious physical differences between the Mercury I & II, two cosmetic changes became somewhat problematic. The Mercury II was made from an alloy that quickly lost its luster, making clean examples difficult to find today. Also, the Mercury II was covered with a synthetic material instead of the leather found on the Mercury I. This may have necessitated the use of a different adhesive, as most examples of the Mercury II have what looks to be glue that has oozed out at the edges of the covering. Despite these issues, the Mercury II was a popular camera in its time, and is prized by collectors today.

12 comments so far

  1. bonnie berry Says:

    Who can tell me about a Univex camera model A made by Universal Camera Company in New York. The box says it uses No 00Ultrachrome film roll It is only about 31/2 inches long. Thanks

  2. John Kratz Says:

    Here’s some information about the Model A:
    http://www.camerapedia.org/wiki/Univex_Model_A

    The Model A is the “very inexpensive camera” I was referring to in the article. Universal sold an awful lot of them, so they aren’t worth much even though they’re nearly 80 years old.
    No. 00 film was made with a special spool which would only fit into Universal cameras, so they made good money selling the film too.

  3. Ed Barnas Says:

    You forgot to mention one other interesting feature of Mercury II (CX) – it was a half-frame camera (24 x 18 mm).

  4. John Kratz Says:

    You’re right – I neglected to mention that. In fact, both versions of the Mercury are half-frame cameras.

  5. susan Says:

    I have a Mercury II model CX its been in my family for many years and would like to know the value.. It is in very good condition.

    thank you susan macneil

  6. John Kratz Says:

    How much someone is willing to pay for a Mercury II depends on a couple of things. Since the Model CX was made for 35mm film, people can still use them. So if you’ve tested it with film and everything works as it should, that will certainly raise the value. If the camera’s finish is bright and clean, that will also raise the value (the finish on most examples tends to be dull and blotchy, like my camera above). Having original boxes, paperwork, and accessories always increases value as well. Finally, if the lens on your camera says “Hexar” on it, that would raise the value significantly.
    Having said all that, I have checked completed eBay listings to see what the Mercurys have been selling for. The average seems to be around $50. The price would go up from there if your camera has some of the attributes I listed.

  7. Jim Stuart Says:

    John – I added a CC-1500 to ‘Show & Tell’ today (10-21-2011). I wonder if you, or anyone can tell me if you have seen a Univex Daylight Bulk Film Winder?

  8. Neil Thederahn Says:

    I used to have 2 of the Mercury Model II’s. One even had a clip on exposure meter. The unique shutter was the most interesting part of the camera. I still have an 8mm movie camera made by the Universal Camera Corp. It is solid and well built just like the Mercury cameras.

  9. dan coakley Says:

    I recall the Univex 8mm movie camera. When I was a teenager, a group of us decided to produce an epic black and white movie using a borrowed Univex 8.
    We had to pool our money to come up with the price of one roll of film.
    our subject was a fairly large tree in a forest, that was ready to fall due to the trunk rotting away.
    One good shove and over it went, somewhat slowly due to neighboring trees.
    When the processed film came back, all we had was one very small black rectangle of one frame. There was something wrong with the camera.

  10. Dave Adams Says:

    I have a univex mercury, I looked for the serial number but I can not find it, I compared it with the other ones that look identical. I was curious if they put the number on it when they first came out with this design.

  11. John Kratz Says:

    Dave,
    On my personal cameras, the serial number is located on the back of the hump (facing you if you were using the camera). On the earlier cameras, however, the back of the hump has the same black leather covering as on the body, so the serial number would not be there on those cameras produced early on. Since I don’t have an example that early, I can’t look myself. I did check my book on Univex cameras, but there was nothing in it about serial number locations.
    I would search eBay for early examples and then ask the seller if they can locate a serial number.
    Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful!

  12. John McEwen Says:

    I have had a Univex Mercury camera for more than 55 years. I used it years ago to take photos in place of my Kodak Brownie. I made my own film by opening b&w cassettes using a dark bag. I would then thread the film onto spools and insert it into the camera. I developed it too. My camera’s serial number is located inside the camera and is centered below the ‘hump’ above the film glides. The number is 003526, which suggests an early camera. It has an additional gadget on it, the “Univex Rapid Winder”. This was not mentioned above but it’s a neat gadget, shaped like a fan with teeth that intersect the teeth on the underside edge of the film winding knob. It pivots on a short boss that has an eccentric shaft. The winder is spring loaded so that it moves slightly up and down on the eccentric, when the full wind is done and is released by the concentric spring. The unit is fastened to the top of the camera with a panhead screw, just to the right of the shutter release. A flat, knurled push plate is bent onto the end of the winder so that the right thumb or index finger can easily push it down all the way, thereby advancing the film the correct distance in one motion. The spring then returns the rapid winder to the cocked position for the next use. It is quite quick by comparison with turning the knob manually.


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