Posted 8 months ago
In general and here on CW, vintage toys are very popular items. But how many collectors are aware of or have actually seen early cameras specifically created and sold as toys for families? It’s something not thought about. Toy and teaching cameras are unusual, and these specialized cameras made before 1900 are mostly unknown even to veteran collectors.
Presented here is an exceedingly rare toy camera; the 1881 American Gem No.2 manufactured by August Herzog. Only three are known.
I just published a paper about Herzog’s toy cameras and thought to share some information here on CW. Most importantly, my research found that Herzog’s apparatus might be some of the earliest, if not the first, specifically made for entertainment and learning. Below is an excerpt from my paper published in the summer 2013 issue of the Photogram - newsletter of the Michigan Photographic Historical Society.
When do new technologies get to a point of being easily learned and adopted? Our lives are surrounded by undemanding products that started, by today’s standards, as crude and difficult to comprehend and operate. This includes photographic equipment and processes. At present, we enjoy highly automated digital cameras, tablets and smart-phones for effortless picture taking at the touch [or click] of a button. These ‘cameras’ practically do all the work and afterwards digital images can be shared instantly and globally using any number of social-media applications. Oddly, the learning curve has shifted from cameras to applications - but what about really early apparatus?
Starting with the first commercial camera and process announcement of 1839, education has been an uphill battle. These days we still consider the daguerreotype process complex yet, in 1839 and subsequent years, beleaguered photographers had to be chemists as well as artists to make images. As photographic technology evolved over time, the learning curve became somewhat easier but not necessarily ‘easy’ even as dry-plates started replacing the wet collodion process throughout the 1870s. Propagation of the art of photography more or less resided with entrepreneurs and skilled studio assistants who were fortunate to have been mentored by a first generation of professionals and enthusiasts who invested years to master the craft.
In looking at the history of early photographic apparatus and their makers since its beginnings, there were numerous ‘How to ...’ publications and other ephemera that also took on the role of teaching photography. And by the 1880s, some of these instruction books included commentary about making money with cameras; which is a good benchmark of when technology becomes less challenging to learn and use.
Although we don’t know what the earliest dedicated ‘teaching’ or ‘toy’ cameras are, or when they were introduced, the 1876 and 1881 Herzog cameras are certainly among the first; if not the first. In 1876, August Herzog was granted U.S. patent No. 182,117 (Sept. 12, 1876 – reissued Sept. 20, 1881 as No. 9,878) for an Improvement in Toy Cameras with an intent to make it easy to inexpensively learn photography.
Herzog’s first camera was conceived at a time of simpler pleasures and must have been quite surprising to a public accustomed to playing with wooden building blocks, tin vehicles, dolls and carriages, kites and the like – toys that encouraged active participation and imagination. The late 1870s was also a time of great transition and business expansion. The first telephone call was made in 1876 and barely two years later, in 1878, the first commercial telephone exchange opened in New Haven Connecticut. A year later, on 22 February 1879, Frank W. Woolworth opened his first 5 cent & 10 cent store in Utica, New York. And most importantly, simpler dry-plate technology was replacing an arduous wet collodion process. Given these events, it would seem that the 1870s was a fitting time for a toy camera – an entertainment and learning tool – that could foster a new generation of photographers eager to embrace easy to make inexpensive pictures.
A paper label inside the wooden case’s lid reaffirms the patent’s product description that this is an educational tool “For Family Use” and being “manufactured for the purpose of teaching those who take an interest in Photography, and for those who desire to spend a little more money for a better article.”
Despite the fact that August Herzog’s creativeness was an effort to pave a new path for uncomplicated toy and learning cameras, their rarity and apparent lack of advertising indicates he was, more than likely, unsuccessful. In addition to a somewhat high price, the problem might also be attributed to a rapidly maturing industry further separating his camera designs from established body patterns already accepted by the public. Or, was the late 1870s and early 1880s toy camera concept simply too soon for consumers who were comfortable with the simpler pleasures of building blocks, dolls, and kites?
In summary, August Herzog’s attempt to offer cameras to teach photography as a family activity is an interesting footnote in the history and evolution of photographic apparatus. His innovative thinking opened the door for others to follow; such as Franklin Putnam’s traditionally styled 1880s Marvel tailboard field view camera that was advertised as an outfit to make money – but that’s another story.