The Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York, was at the forefront of the major photographic technology advances of the 20th century, from the introduction of flexible camera film sold by the roll, to the production of film for the first motion pictures with sound. Mostly, though, Kodak revolutionized the world of amateur photography by making cameras affordable, portable, and easy to use. With the creation of small, inexpensive cameras like the Brownie in 1900, anyone was suddenly able to document their daily lives through simple snapshots, a legacy that lasts to this day. Within a few years, Kodak was more than just a household name, and “Kodaking” was used interchangeably with “photographing.”

The birth of the company dates to 1878, when George Eastman purchased his first camera in preparation for an overseas trip. Cameras at the time required heavy glass negatives covered in various chemical emulsions that fixed an image when exposed to light. Working in his mother’s kitchen, Eastman began experimenting with different emulsion formulas. By 1880, he had developed a new dry-plate process using a thin gelatin layer, as well as a machine to mass-produce the plates.

This new technology completely changed the capabilities of photographers. The plates could be stored safely for extended periods of time, absorbed light quickly for shorter exposure times (which meant someone posing for a portrait did not need to stand perfectly still for excessive periods of time), and did not require instant processing as wet-plates did, thus ending the need for on-site darkrooms.

The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company was officially established in 1884, but Eastman continued to tinker with plate materials, hoping to replace the standard glass with a lighter, cheaper substitute. He developed a method of coating paper with gelatin layers, but photographers who were used to glass plates were slow to adopt his new gelatin-emulsion paper film. Stymied, Eastman decided to reinvent the camera altogether.

At the time, photographs were still primarily taken in studios by skilled professionals because of the need for massive equipment, from the cameras themselves to the machines to develop the film. Photographers also had to have complete control over backgrounds and lighting due to the long exposure times. In 1888, Eastman challenged this cumbersome system with the handheld Kodak camera. Eastman came up with the name Kodak out of thin air, claiming that the letter “K” was a favorite of his, “a strong, incisive sort of letter.”

To signal the change in focus, Eastman renamed his firm the Eastman Company since the future was clearly not in manufacturing Dry Plate and Film. But by 1892, the Kodak brand had taken off, so another name change, the Eastman Kodak Company, positioned the company as a producer of cameras for all people, not just professionals.

From its very first slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest,” Kodak emphasized the ease and accessibility of photography. Individuals could now easily document the seemingl...

The first Kodak model sold for $25, or around two week’s worth of wages, which was still quite expensive. After shooting the 100 exposures that were built into the camera, customers would return the entire device to the factory for processing and printing. The following year, Kodak introduced a new roll-style film on transparent backing, thus establishing the film format that was the standard until digital cameras took over at the beginning of the 21st century.

George Eastman quickly recognized the important role that women and children could have in integrating his cameras into daily life; as early as 1893, Kodak advertising was targeted directly to these groups. Eastman understood the central role women played in recording and documenting family life, as well as the untapped market children represented for his company. This focus on the domestic sphere also created an entirely new genre of photographs, those of candid private moments valued as a form of personal memory.

The image of the Kodak Girl was soon inseparable from Eastman’s products. In her blue-and-white striped dress, the Kodak Girl enjoyed and documented leisure activities in beautiful outdoor settings. She was typically portrayed on her own, happy in her new-found independence behind the camera lens.

Kodak’s innovations in both business and technology continued in quick succession. In 1895, the company released the amazing Pocket Kodak, a $5 camera that was small enough to fit in a coat pocket, which greatly improved convenience for casual photographers. This was the first truly affordable, hand-held camera to make photography accessible to the masses.

In 1900, the first of Kodak’s famous Brownie models was offered for $1.00, with replacement film priced at just 15 cents. The Brownie derived its name from the beloved children’s book series, “The Brownies,” by Palmer Cox, and its cast of mischievous brown-clothed elves. Kodak advertised the Brownie in popular magazines of the day, sponsoring a Brownie Camera Club for children under 16 and holding special events and competitions to keep customers engaged.

During the 1920s, inexpensive cameras from Europe like the Leica 35mm and Rolleiflex began offering skilled amateurs and professionals alike higher-quality lenses and more flexible settings than Kodak products. Instead of challenging these companies, Kodak continued to focus on the popularity of its products among middle-class, family photographers.

Beginning in 1928, Kodak released a series of cameras designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and targeted specifically at female users. Models with names like the Coquette, Vanity, and Petite came in stylish colors with bold, Art Deco exteriors. These cameras were marketed as fashion accessories as well as photographic tools. The most trend-oriented was the Ensemble set, which included a compact, mirror, change purse, and lipstick in addition to a miniature camera.

The highly collectible and stylish Kodak Bantam appeared in 1935. The original Bantam designs featured a black Bakelite or cast-alloy body, making them extremely lightweight compared to earlier cameras. Walter Dorwin Teague’s alterations for the Bantam Special in 1936 incorporated horizontal metal striping that gave the Special a distinctly modernist look.

In 1935, Kodak also released its famous Kodachrome film, allowing for the reproduction of color slides and transparencies, which vastly improved the realism of amateur photography. Kodacolor film, which finally made possible color printing, was available beginning in 1942.

When Edwin Land released the first instant-developing camera in 1948 for Polaroid, Kodak was up against its first significant competitor in the amateur-snapshot market. Eventually, Kodak created a similar instant-print film, and was sued by Polaroid for patent violation. Kodak lost the lawsuit brought in 1986, and was forced to discontinue its instant-print film line and pay Polaroid a hefty settlement.

Kodak’s first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera arrived in 1958, with the Reflex Retina, an update of the classic 35mm Retina model. The SLR process relied on a mirror and prism system, allowing a photographer to see the exact image that will be captured in the viewfinder before the shutter is snapped.

Throughout its history, the Eastman Kodak Company also contributed to major innovations in other industries that depended on image reproduction. For example, after Wilhem Roentgen discovered the X-ray in 1896, Kodak quickly entered into an agreement to supply specially designed plates and paper for this new process, thus contributing to the medical-technology revolution of the early 20th century.

In 1928, a subsidiary company called Recordak began selling a new microfilm system to improve the management of bank records. A version of this technology was used in World War II for the so-called Victory Mail or V-mail program. Letters to soldiers were photographed and shipped as film to improve storage capacity, then reprinted at their destinations. Later, many libraries adapted this microfilm technology to save space and better preserve their aging newspaper and journal collections.

Kodak also drove innovation in the motion-picture industry. In 1896, the company marketed the first film coated specifically for faster moving projection speeds. Kodak also made movie cameras, and as early as 1929, Kodak had developed a film that combined recorded sound with moving-picture technology.

In 1949, the company received an Academy Award for its patent of a tri-acetate film base, which eliminated the use of flammable nitrate film and increased the longevity of film stock. Prior to this development, there was a very high risk of cinema fires due to the close contact of nitrate film with hot projector lights and machinery.

Kodak was soon working to create film technology that could be used for amateur motion pictures, too. Kodak released Super 8mm film in 1965, thus introducing the world to the original home-movie technology, which made the live recording of family moments a possibility for the first time. In 1973, the format was improved with the addition of sound, thus perfecting the medium and allowing amateurs to record reality in a way that we take for granted today.

The company contributed to the digital revolution, too. In 1971, Kodak received the first digital-camera patent for a device that recorded imagery on cassette tape. Though the resulting images only had a 0.01mp resolution and required a 23-second exposure time, Kodak was again at the forefront of imaging technology innovation.

Unfortunately, the company relied too heavily on its traditional products rather than expanding production in the digital arena. In early 2012, due to increasing foreign competition and a failure to focus on new digital-camera developments, Kodak declared bankruptcy.

Between 1900 and 1999, Kodak was awarded a total of 19,576 patents for its many advancements in the fields of film, photography, and image reproduction. However, this number only begins to suggest the company’s enormous impact on contemporary culture and the omnipresence of photographs and shared images today.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

If there’s a heaven for Kodak cameras and ephemera, it’s probably to make it into Charlie Kamerman’s vast col… [read review or visit site]

The Kodak Girl Collection

The Kodak Girl Collection

This in-depth collection pays homage to the Kodak Girl, created by Kodak in 1893, and the history of female photogr… [read review or visit site]

Brownie Box Cameras

Brownie Box Cameras

At Brownie Box Cameras, collector Remy Steller traces the evolution of Kodak’s inexpensive box-shaped Brownie, fr… [read review or visit site]

George Eastman House

George Eastman House

This showcase of vintage cameras and photography is plainly designed, but the camera collection and related referen… [read review or visit site]

Collection D'Appareils Photo

Collection D'Appareils Photo

While we couldn't read everthing - it's mostly in French - the images on this site speak for themselves. Its an ext… [read review or visit site]

Magic Mirror of Life

Magic Mirror of Life

Jack and Beverly Wilgus have put together a great trove of information and images of camera obscura-related photos … [read review or visit site]

Cameras and Co

Cameras and Co

An impressive collection of antique and vintage cameras, this site features high-resolution images of over 120 came… [read review or visit site]

Antique Cameras D. Tristram Ludwig

Antique Cameras D. Tristram Ludwig

David Tristram Ludwig shares high resolution images of his in-depth personal collection of antique cameras, includi… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Very Rare 1902 Antique Camera Kodak No 3 Series D 1/4 Plate, Restoration ProjectKodak Chevron Camera, 6x6 On 620, Lovely Condition, As Seen, Shutter IssueKodak Medalist Camera - Excellent Condition 1941Vintage Kodak Retina Iiic Iii C Rangefinder Camera W/ Schneider 50mm Lens Kodak Bantam Special Rangefinder Camera With Ektar Lens And Leather CaseKodak Bantam Special, Ektar 2/45mm, Compur Rapid Shutter W/case And AccessoriesKodak Beau Brownie Art Deko Cameras. Models 2 And 2aKodak No 4 String-set Wood Box Camera C1895Antique Kodak No 3a Series Ii Compur Folding Camera W Leather CaseKodak Retina Iiis 35mm Camera F:1.9/50mm Schneider Kreuznach Lens Working Cond.Kodak Rainbow Hawkeye No.2 Folding Vintage CameraVintage Kodak Retina Reflex 35 Mm Camera And Framex Self Timer Shutter Release Vintage Kodak Reflex Dual Lens Camera W/extraEastman Kodak 3a Graflex Box Camera Bausch Lomb Tessar LenseVest Pocket Autographic Kodak Model B15 X Vintage Kodak Plus-x Pan. Black &white Print Films Px 135 - 36 Exp 1981Burdlo Stereo Camera By David Burder - Nimslo Realist Belplasca Kodak Wollensak Eastman Kodak Company No 3 Model H Folding Camera Antique Roll Film BellowsAntique Kodak Autographic Camera 3a Red Bellows Circa 1912 Folding Pocket CameraVintage Kodak Vest Pocket Girl Scout Folding Camera W/ Original CaseLot Of 5 Vintage Cameras Kodak Brownie, Reflecta, Lubitel 2Original Vest Pocket Kodak A Folding Camera, 1912-24, Eastman Kodak, WorkingVintage Kodak Hawkeye No 2 Model B Folding Cartridge Camera W/orig Box - VgcVintage No.1a Folding Pocket Camera By Eastman KodakAntique Kodak Pocket No. 1 CameraKodak Anastigmat 161mm F4.5 In Fairchild Aviation Shutter K-20Vintage Box Camera, Kodak Brownie Target Six-16 With Flash Kodak Retina Reflex Iii 35mm Slr Works PerfectlyVintage Kodak Retina Ii A Camera Misc LotAntique Kodak Teal-blue Folding Vest Pocket Series Iii Camera Diomatic No. 0Vintage Kodak Retina Ii C With Rodenstock Lens 50mmVintage Kodak Vigilant Six 20 Folding Camera - 1940s - AnastonVintage Leather Cased Vest Pocket Kodak Series Iii Folding CameraVintage “six-16 Kodak F6.3 Anastigmat Camera” In Original Art Deco BoxVintage Kodak Cine Special Ii W/ Accessories Manuals & Case & Lense ManualsNo. 3a Folding Hawk Eye Kodak Blair - 2 Backs Plate And Roll Film - Red BellowsRare Eastman Kodak No.2 Flash Cartridges, Half Dozen, Mint Ca.1890 Look!!!!!!Antique Eastman Kodak 3a Autographic Junior Folding Camera Red Bellow + CaseVintage - Kodak Vigilant Six-20 - Folding Film Camera With Original BoxAntique 1916 All Red Box Camera Eastman Kodak Co. Nice Vintage Kodak 2a Model C Brownie Camera & Original Palmer Cox Cartoon Box1 Roll Kodak Verichrome Pan Black & White Film - Vp 127Kodak Retina Iiic Vintage 35mm Camera 6 Eastman Kodak Cameras & Supply Catalogs All Excellent+ All Pre 1921Kodak Brownie Target Six-16 Box CameraVintage Kodak Brownie Six 20Kodak Anastigmat 4in. ( 102mm ) F2.7 S-mount Cine Movie Camera Lens (mid 1930's)*1897* #2 Bulls Eye Black Leather Kodak Box Camera Vintage Kodak Duaflex Iii Twin Lens Camera - 620 Medium Format - Excellent Cond.1937 Kodak 16mm Kodachrome 100ft Unexposed, Returned By Kodak Unprocessed ReadKodak 50d/7245 Color Negative 16mm Film 2002, 100ftLot Of 2 35mm Cameras..kodak Retina Ii & Kodak Signet 35..very Good ConditionKodak Stereo 3d Camera - Great Cond. - In Box Manual Included - Viewer IncludedVintage Kodak Junior Six-20 Series Ii Bimat Folding Camera Box O' Vintage Wooden Negative Holders - Kodak, Century, OthersBeautiful 1930's Art Deco Kodak Six-16 Folding Pocket Camera-with Case Mint!!Antique/vintage Kodak 2c Folding Autographic Brownie Camera & InstructionsKodak Bantam Special - Ektar F:2 45 Mm Compur-rapid Lens Camera Vintage Kodak Brownie Bull's Eye Camera With Flash Outfit In Original Box Kodak Brownie Fiesta Camera