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The 1883 Pearsall Compact Camera and its Maker

In Cameras > Wood Cameras > Show & Tell.
Cameras1255 of 1281No.2 Brownie Junior with original extreme rare boxForeign wood frame bellows camera
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Posted 7 years ago


(281 items)

One of my goals as a collector is to understand cameras, their purpose, and the builder’s intent. The camera shown here was patented in 1883 by G. Frank E. Pearsall; a well known Brooklyn photographer who opened his first studio in the 1870s. As a famous portraitist, Frank made images of celebrities, politicians, and the wealthy. One of his best known pictures is a portrait of Walt Whitman.

There are only three known examples of Pearsall's Compact Camera; which would lead us to believe it was a commercial failure - but it was actually a radical departure in camera design and unlike anything seen before it. This was the first camera that could completely fold into its own protective case (all delicate parts were completely encased within the outer body).

Unbeknownst to Pearsall at the time, the ‘DNA’ of his Compact Camera would eventually be rediscovered in 1890 by George Eastman, adopted by all major builders, and appear in every one of the smaller, refined self-casing cameras made through the mid 1900s!

But what about Frank: What was the motivation for a successful Brooklyn based gallery owner and portraitist to suddenly build his own camera? After years of research, I am getting closer to the answer.

Along the way, I was fortunate to acquire a late 1860s tintype portrait of Frank Pearsall – apparently in his 20s – and a business card with an early studio address. Even if I don’t unravel the mystery of why Frank built this fascinating camera, it’s satisfying to know that I’ve reunited the maker and his camera.

BTW … don’t let the Pearsall family portrait fool you. The business card and tintype are small in comparison to Pearsall’s “Compact” camera.


  1. walksoftly walksoftly, 5 years ago
    The motivation was simply the fact that he knew he could make a better product. Creativity shows up in many forms, it could be posing clients for portraits or composing a shot or designing a new camera. The trigger could have been the result of a camera damaged because it's working parts were exposed.
    I love craftsmanship in any form.
  2. rniederman rniederman, 5 years ago
    Thanks, walksoftly! Your thoughts are closer to reality than you know. I've researched this for many years. It appears that the portable camera design was created because Pearsall needed something to take to the ballpark ... that's right ... 1880s baseball. It ends up that Frank was Henry Chadwick's personal photographer. And as most folks are aware, Chadwick is often called 'the father of baseball'. There's a Chadwick comment I'm researching with the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in which he supposedly said something along the lines of; "Pearsall invented a portable camera appropriate for baseball." This is a great example of creativity and building a better product as you noted. Somewhere in all the baseball literature and interviews I'll find the primary source.
  3. walksoftly walksoftly, 5 years ago
    Well I don't know much about baseball, but I do know a thing or two about designing & inventing, & it doesn't take much to get the creative juices flowing.
    Good luck in your quest for info.
  4. rniederman rniederman, 5 years ago
    Thanks Bellin and JohnK!
  5. rniederman rniederman, 5 years ago
    Thanks eye4beauty and officialfuel!
  6. rniederman rniederman, 5 years ago
    Thanks, Scott!
  7. rniederman rniederman, 5 years ago
    Thanks, mustangtony!
  8. rniederman rniederman, 5 years ago
    Thanks mtg75 and AntigueToys!
  9. Emily130, 5 years ago
    I have a question.
    Do you know the measurements of this camera?
    If so can you tell me?
    The height, width, and length.
  10. rniederman rniederman, 5 years ago
    The camera is 13" tall x 12-1/2" wide x 6-3/4" deep (closed) or 19" deep when opened as shown.
  11. rniederman rniederman, 4 years ago
    Thanks, Don!
  12. rniederman rniederman, 4 years ago
    Thanks, aghcollect!
  13. rniederman rniederman, 2 years ago
    Thanks, JosephIssac!

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