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.

30 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:

    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:

    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.

  13. Perry Bowker Says:

    I too have had a model CC for about 50 years (serial #25465). I bought it at a war surplus store circa 1962 and used it to document my lab work at the University of Toronto. I thought it was pretty cool at the time, since it has an exposure calculator on the back and depth of field tables on the shutter housing, and supports a huge range of exposure, from T, B to 1/1000. It was useful since I lived in a residence – I hand wound a cassette of 35mm B&W film onto the spools in the dark, then later on developed the film in a daylight tank and dried the negative on a hanger in my closet. 72 half frames was plenty for a lot of experiments, and altho I had to read the tiny half-frame negative with a magnifier, it worked fine and I didn’t need to have printing equipment. It’s lived in a plastic bag for the last 45 years, but when I recently pulled it out it worked just fine (mechanically, at least) but the aluminum is pitted and the leather skins have decayed. Great little machine. If I can find some film I may give it a go for old times’ sake.

  14. Kendall Says:

    Does anyone know the price that the Mercury ii was sold at when it was first released?

  15. John Kratz Says:

    Here’s a picture of a Mercury II with its original price tag:

  16. Benjamin Gradler Says:

    I have a 35mm f2 Hexar lens for one of these cameras in nice shape. I was looking for examples of past sales on the internet to see how much they have recently sold for and I could not find any. I never had a Mercury camera, I just got the lens with a box of photography bits. If it cost about $30 before wwII that was a lot of money, it was about a weeks pay at a good job back then. I would like to either sell the lens or get a camera body to fit it so I could try it out. Thank-you for your time…..

  17. John Kratz Says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that you couldn’t find any recent sales, since the Hexar is hard to find even as part of the camera sale, let alone as the lens only. As such, I really don’t know what you’d be able to get for it. As McKeown’s law states, the price is completely dependent upon the moods of the buyer and seller at the time of the transaction. I will say I think you’re looking at a very limited market; How many people are out there who shoot with a Mercury and simply must have the 2.0? And for collectors who just want it to have it, I can’t imagine they’d be willing to part with a week’s pay for one. Probably under $100 if I had to guess.
    If you’d rather keep it and try it out with a Mercury body, I would make sure to get a Mercury II (CX), and not the pre-war models (CC), since the II will take 35mm film and the original Mercurys will not.

  18. Jess Says:

    This article was wildly informative & well written. Thank you!

  19. John Kratz Says:

    Thank you Jess!

  20. Cliff Peebles Says:

    Hi John, thanks for the info.. My sons found Mercury II literally buried in the back yard. I would be curious how old it is, but I cannot find any references for serial numbers and productions dates. Any ideas? In case you do, the number is 69995. I will try to post it in the show & tell gallery too. Thanks.

  21. Mark Boucher Says:

    I have a Mercury II CX that I am wanting to sell. How much should I expect to get for it today?

  22. Bill Lee Says:

    I bought my camera this past year for $40. It came with a nice leather case. I recently bought the add-on Flash adapter which is very cool as well. Mine is the post-war model and like everybody said it’s a half frame camera. Not wanting to shoot 70-plus pictures with it first time out, I went to eBay and bought a 135 DLC that had 12 exposures. This gave me about 23 or 24 images. I would encourage doing that your first time out to see how it works. Mine takes beautiful pictures so I immediately went to the camera store and bought a 36 exposure roll of 35mm film. You will get plenty of positive comments if you use it around town as people have not seen any cameras like this at all. I would encourage everyone who has a post-war
    Mercury II camera to put some film in it and go shooting.

  23. Kathie Walker Says:

    Benjamin Gradler

    If you still have your F2 Hexar lens, I have a camera for you. It is a Mercury II model CX serial number 47639.

  24. christy day Says:

    I have the mercury univex cc with hexar 35mm lens flash case and all. 1938 copyright by universal. This is only worth 100 or less?

  25. Jef Jaisun Says:

    I have my father’s original Mercury CC, which I’m sure he purchased in 1938. In fact, I have at least one image from his 1938 University of Washington Sociology class project, where he documented Seattle’s Hooverville. (When I asked him where the negs were, he told me the professor kept them because he liked them so much.) He continued to use the camera well into the 1940s, as evidenced by the half-frame family photos taken in 1946 and 1948. When he passed I wound up with his film archives, and it’s been quit a trip getting some of this stuff printed up. I, too, figured out you could bulk load 35mm B&W film into the CC, but I never really shot it much. There’s a roll in it now, but I have no idea when I loaded it or what’s on it. Solid camera, though. You can hammer nails with it. And nobody’s mentioned the incredibly detailed exposure wheel on the back. That in itself must have been a handy technical break-through.

  26. Fer van der Linden Says:

    Very nice article. Got a Univex Mercury II yesterday (in near mint condition) so this is very helpfull.
    Thank you very much.
    Serial no. : 014983

  27. John Paul Says:

    I added a Mercury II to my collection recently for only 15 bucks. It was kinda ugly.
    I polished the housing, cleaned the lens, cleaned and lubricated the shutter mechanism, fixed a stuck focusing ring, and replaced the leather.
    Now, it feels, sounds, and looks pretty smooth, so I’m about to shoot a roll through it.
    The article was very informative and helpful, as are the comments.
    Sweet addition to any collection!

  28. Brandon D Says:

    I have two Mercury II CX cameras, which I’ve brought up in RangeFinderForum in the past:

    CX #1. serial number 43216 (no feet on bottom, supposedly those begin around 100,000). Also, my sn contradicts the numbering system that an online source states CX begins at about 46000, so it’s suspected the sn is 143216, though there is no “1” at all, the rest of the numbers are very clearly stamped and well centered on the plate.

    CX #2. rear serial number plate is missing and was [likely] replaced with leather (as seen on early CC models). I removed the [original] leather and there are two very shallow indentations where the screws may have been for the rear plate, however they aren’t drilled-through holes with machine thread, as seen on my CX #1 (when I removed its rear plate for comparison). It doesn’t look like the holes were filled either, they just weren’t machined through, so I’m wondering if the rear leather is original and this was a sample, pre-production or error CX? The camera happens to have a Universal made f2/7 Tricor, and the rear plate would usually have the additional depth of field info. I’ve taken it completely apart to service it, and there is no serial number inside the camera anywhere. I did find pencil markings “K30” written on the inside of both hump halves.

  29. Natosha Myers Says:

    I recently was given 4 vintage cameras and was wondering if anyone could tell me what they’re worth it how to find out. All of the mechanics seem to work but I haven’t put film in an of them yet to see if they actually work but..
    I have a mercury II CX with a flash unit attached, a kodak retina Ia 50mm type 015, a kodak vigilant six-20 105mm, and a kodak tourist f/4.5 105mm. If anyone could help, that would be fantastic. Thank you

  30. Daniel Says:

    Would anyone be willing to help me on just where to begin restoring a Mercury II? I have no idea what I’m doing but my wife is a photographer and was gifted one but it is in rough shape cosmetically and could likely use some TLC to the mechanical side of things as well. I would love to be able to restore it and get it functional for her as a gift. Any help would be much appreciated. Thank You

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