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Kodak Box Brownie – Brought Inexpensive Photography to the Masses

Kodak Box Brownie – Introduced in 1900

The Kodak Box Brownie

I remember as a child my mother had a box brownie camera. I don’t know what model it was. She died many years ago so I can’t ask her. I do remember that it was all black in colour. Sadly I don’t know what happened to the camera. However, I do have prints made from the negatives. You can see these in the photo gallery below.

My mum dutifully recorded the dates the pictures were taken along with a few details on the reverse side of the prints. What is really important to me is although I have no personal recollection of the events shown in these photographs, they are a record of my early life that I would otherwise have no knowledge of at all.
It was for this very purpose that millions of Kodak Brownies were made and sold. The Box Brownie was a product aimed at the masses right from its inception.

Mum would get eight shots to a roll of 620 black and white film. It must have been quite inexpensive to have the film developed because as a child we certainly didn’t have very much money.
A Little History about George Eastman and Kodak

No website about cameras and photography would be complete without the mention of George Eastman. Kodak was founded by George Eastman and Henry Strong in 1888. The first commercially successful box camera for roll film ever made was released the same year. It was called the Kodak. It was sold pre-loaded with film for 100 exposures and cost a quite high price of $25.00.

Up until that time photography was an awkward and cumbersome business. Professionals worked almost entirely in studios. They used fragile glass plates and large cameras made from brass and wood (usually mahogany). Exposure times were very long and subjects had to remain very still to prevent blurring in the photograph. It is a strange feature of very early photographs taken in urban areas that they appear to be totally devoid of people. It was only those who remained motionless for a good part of the long exposure who would be visible in the photograph!

Travel photography was very difficult with the large heavy cameras of the day and exposed plates had to be developed almost immediately which meant the equally cumbersome and awkward darkroom equipment had to travel with the photographer as well.

When Eastman released the Box Brownie in 1900 it sold for just $1.00 and a roll of film was only 15 cents. At the time the average wage in the United States was about $12.00 per week. The inexpensive, highly portable and “simple to operate” Box Brownie made photography available to practically anyone!

The Box Brownie in its day was the equivalent of the modern low-priced cell phone with an inbuilt camera. It meant for the first time in history average working people could afford to take photos of family members, family occasions, candid shots, and scenic views on their travels, that would form a pictorial record of their lives.

In WWII New Zealand soldiers were not supposed to take cameras with them overseas. However many did. Old wartime photographs from this period taken by Kiwi soldiers were almost always taken using the Kodak Box Brownie. 

Kodak Brownie Flash II. On the top right, the landscape brilliant finder reverses the view from left to right.

Box Brownie Models

The label on the Inside of the film door says to use 620 films on the Kodak Flash II. The best option is to rewind the film from a 120 spool onto a 620 spool.

The first Box Brownie camera released in 1900 was a very basic cardboard box with a simple meniscus lens that took 2 1/4-inch square pictures and used 117 roll film. There were 260,000 produced for Kodak by Brownell Manufacturing Co. in Rochester, New York. 

The following year 1901 Kodak released the No. 2 Brownie. The No. 2 series Brownie cameras all use 120 films. The negatives are the classic rectangular 2¼ x 3¼ inch (6cm x 9cm) size. You can see the different Box Brownie models along with the Brownie folding models here at Brownie-Camera.com

Over a 62 year lifespan starting in 1900 and ending in 1962 there’ve been some 200 different box Brownie models, with steady improvements being made over the years. The first models were largely made of wood and cardboard. Later models were generally made of mental. Whilst improvements were made to make the Box Brownie more durable the original idea of maintaining the camera’s simplicity of operation remained the same. For this reason, there were no Brownies made with changeable lenses, adjustable apertures, changeable film speeds, and so on.

Kodak Box Brownie Flash II film holder with a 120 spool in place. The wider spool ends hit the top of the camera when the film holder is inserted.

Useful Additional Features

There were some worthwhile improvements which you can find on the Brownie Six-20 models, in particular, these are flash contacts, brilliant finders (these reverse the image but are easier to see through); yellow filter slide-out (when shooting black and white film a yellow filter absorbs blue which darkens the sky and makes clouds appear brighter); 2-pin flash contacts (so the camera can be used indoors); shutter safety catch (to prevent double exposures); tripod sockets (to reduced blur); cable release socket (also to reduce blur from camera shake). Also worth having are models with a closeup filter for use when taking photographs between five and 10 feet from the subject.

Another valuable feature, though probably not one that is used very often by most photographers, is a B shutter setting for use in low light when not using flash. With this feature, guesswork is required as to how long to hold your finger on the button, which keeps the shutter open. For an interior shot taken in daylight, this would be something like 1 to 10 seconds depending on film speed. When using the B setting you must use a tripod or a table, or the like, in order to keep the camera very still so the picture won’t be blurred.

The last Box Brownie made was the Flash II (shown in this article). It was made between 1958 and 1962 in Melbourne, Australia. It sold for £2 12s. 2d. It is a robust metal-bodied model coated with imitation leather (leatherette). This model is all metal and noticeably of much higher quality than the older box brownies.

It isn’t known exactly how many Box Brownie cameras were made and sold but is thought to number in the tens of millions.

Buying film for your old Box Brownie Camera

A plastic 120 film spool on the left and a metal 620 spool on the right. When you get your film developed always include a note asking for the return of your 620 spools.

Box Brownie cameras, even quite old ones, use readily available 120 medium format film. The negatives are 2¼ x 3¼ inch or 6x9cm. However, you will find a sticker inside of many models that says “Use Kodak 620 Films.” This is where it starts to get a little bit confusing. Over the years box brownies used various different size films including; 116, 117, and 127. The most common roll film used was 620 and 120. Only 120 film is still widely available in stores.

120 and 620 films are exactly the same, the only difference is the size of the spool around which the film is wrapped. The 120 size spools came first. I believe Kodak came up with the idea of using 620 spools (the ends of which are slightly smaller in circumference) in their box brownie cameras in order to force photographers to purchase Kodak film.

You can often get away with using 120 films even though the manufacturer recommends 620 films. However, because 120 film spools are a couple of millimetres wider, there’s a tendency for the film to jam, or at least be hard to wind on to the next frame. This problem is more noticeable with some Box Brownie models than others. If the 120 film becomes too tight to wind on you will be forced to open the back to free it which will result in the film becoming a complete loss.

A 620 metal film spool (top) and a slightly larger 120 spool (below).

There are two simple ways around this problem. You can purchase 120 films and rewind it by hand onto a 620 spool. This, of course, has to be done in total darkness either by using a lightproof bag or by doing it in a darkened room at night. The job is nowhere near as difficult as it sounds. There are several very good videos on YouTube that show you how to rewind 120 films onto a 620 spool. Re-rolling 120 films onto a 620 film spool.

The second way around this problem is to purchase 120 films that have been hand-wound onto a 620 spool. You can buy these from some leading photography stores, and you’ll also find them available on eBay.

I have read in the comments sections on camera websites about photographers trimming the outer edge of 120 film spools with scissors so that they fit in cameras designed for 620 films. I haven’t tried this personally but I can’t see why it wouldn’t work.

Eight Exposures per 120 film

As a box brownie produces negatives that measured 6×9 you get only eight images to a roll of 120 films. When shooting the same film with a 6×6 medium format camera like the Yashica Mat you get 12 exposures.
You may have seen albums or boxes of old black and white photo prints that are quite small. The reason for that is usually because contact prints were made without a larger as an economy measure. Large sheets of photographic paper were and are quite expensive.

Contact sheets have all the exposures from a roll of film printed onto a single sheet of photographic paper. Each exposure is usually the same size as the negative. A customer would look at the contact sheet and decide which exposures to have enlarged.

I was lucky enough to get this Kodak Box Brownie Flash II in excellent, almost unused condition, complete with box and instruction manual.

Scanning Negatives

I always send my films away to be developed marked “dev only”. That means I have the negatives developed but no prints made. I then scan the negatives using my Epson Perfection 2480 photo and film scanner. When used in conjunction with VueScan software, which I highly recommend, this old inexpensive scanner produces excellent digital files from 35 mm and medium format negatives or positives (slides). Though I must admit in recent years I have been more inclined to have the film scanned to disk by the developer in order to save time. Scanning your own film both negative and positive works fine but is quite a slow process especially if you have several hundred frames you want to be scanned.

The VueScan software is remarkably good and cost less than $100. It is far superior to the original software that came with the scanner. If you can’t be bothered with all that malarkey you can simply seed your film away to be processed and prints made for you. Most photofinishers nowadays will also scan the film for you onto a CD which is ideal if you want to share your photos on social media. If you rarely shoot film the latter option, though a little more expensive, will be a lot less hassle.

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Allan Burgess

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Left: The Kodak 620 Popular 'Brownie' made from 1939-1943 and right, the Kodak Brownie Flash II 1958-1963. This model was the last of the Kodak box cameras.