Thursday, 21 April 2011

Photo buttons

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In my personal family collection is a small button, 12.4 mm or half an inch in diameter, with a photograph on it of my great-uncle Willem Hendrik Schipper (1882-1932), dressed in his Dutch merchant navy uniform. I've not seen many of these around, so I thought I'd do some research on when they were popular and how they were produced. It would also be nice to know how many others have examples in their collections.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Judging from a comparison of this photograph with others of Willem in an old album which belonged to my great-aunt Tante Gien, it was taken in his mid- to late twenties, say between 1906 and 1912. He was eventually Chief Engineer on several ships belonging to Royal Dutch Lloyd, but I imagine that at this time he was of a more junior rank.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This photo button was designed with a pin on the reverse, presumably so that it could be worn on clothing.

The first cameras specifically designed to produce photo buttons appear to have been the rather unwieldy Takuquick (1902) and Taquta (1905), both using dry ferrotype plates loaded into a separate compartment which, after exposure, were dropped into a developing and fixing unit [1].

Wonder Automatic Cannon camera, c.1910

Two brothers Manuel and Louis Mandel, operating as the Chicago Ferrotype Company, started selling a variety of "one-minute picture-taking machines in 1907 [2].

Image courtesy of Google Patents
Louis Mandel's Magazine Developing Camera, Patented Dec. 22, 1908

They introduced their first commercial camera, the Mandel-ette, capable of taking direct positive photographs using a 2½" x 3½" card format, in 1909, and followed that with the Wonder Automatic camera, originally patented in the United States 1908 as a "Magazine Developing Camera," shortly after [3]. This condensed the photographic apparatus into a much smaller and handier package.

Image courtesy of Mike Butkus

In 1910 an improvement marketed as the Wonder Automatic Cannon camera was being sold, capable of producing eight button photographs per minute, a complete outfit being priced at $23.30. This enabled a very low production cost, and a reasonable profit from selling the photo buttons at 5 cents each [4]. One inch diameter sensitised blanks were loaded into the cannon, the shutter was operated by squeezing the rubber bulb, and a bolt-operated device dropped the exposed button into a developer tank in the base. After 30 seconds the button was removed from the tank, rinsed and inserted into a pinback frame [5]. It was patented in England in 1911, and presumably sold there after that date.

Errtee button tintype camera by Romain Talbot, Berlin, 1912

Telephot by British Ferrotype Co., Blackpool, c.1913
Image courtesy of Early Photography

Several other similar photo button cameras were produced, including the Errtee and Wundergranate by Romain Charles Talbot of Berlin, Germany (1910), and the more telescope-like Telephot from the British Ferrotype Co. of Blackpool, England (1913) [1,6].

R├Ąderkanone by Romain Talbot, Berlin, c.1912
Image courtesy of John's Rollei Collection

The R├Ąderkanone (Romain Talbot, c.1912), operating with the same prionciples but fashioned in the shape of an artillery cannon, was commonly used by itinerant photographers at fairs, carnivals and other tourist attractions [7].

I found images of several different types of photo button on the net, sometimes with ornate or decorated frames, and often with the name of the type (Rapid Pinback), manufacturer (Granley Photo Button Mfg. Co., 4109 Wabash Avenue, Chicago; Indianapolis Photo Button Co., No 8½ E. Wash. St.) or photographer (W.T. Ross, Appleton, Wis.) printed inside the back, and in one case even a possible date (May 31, 98.).

I'd be keen to see other varieties, and perhaps even some dated examples. It suggested by some authors [1] that these button cameras continued to be used into the late 1930s, but it would be nice to see some dated examples or advertisements. Please feel free to send me some scans or, even better, blog about them yourself and post a link in the comments.


[1] Cameras: From Daguerreotypes to Instant Pictures, by Brian Coe, Crown Publishers, 1978, p.181-183.

[2] Chicago Ferrotype Company History, by Historic Camera History Librarium.

[3] Magazine Developing Camera, Louis Mandel, Patent Application filed 7 July 1908, Granted 22 Dec 1908, Courtesy of Google Patents.

[4] Photographic Advertising from A to Z Ads from 1888 to 1940's, by Mike Butkus.

[5] Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital, by Todd Gustavson, New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2009, p. 303-304.

[6] Telephot, by Early Photography.

[7] Historically Important Cameras, by John's Rollei Collection.


  1. Well, I'll try - I have a photo button of a great-great uncle who was sheriff of Dallas County, Texas from 1886 to 1892; this may have been a campaign button (we're not sure). I have several photos of him, some of which I can guess dates for (he lived from 1851 or 1852 to 1946), but I don't know when the button was made. Not sure I can take a decent photo of the button, but I'll try and will post it with some of the other pictures.

  2. I look mforward to seeing the photographs, Greta. I must admit to having quite some difficulty with the photos of my photo button. Eventually I had to ask my daughter, who has a better camera than I do, to take them. I also tried several different lighting set ups, because the reflections were a problem. Eventually indirect sunlight worked best.

  3. Your blog is the only info I've found so far on these button photos - I've just acquired 3 by the Chacago Ferrotype Company and have been trying to fiund out more. Are these rare or too common to have recieved much attention? Tried to find you on facebook but the link didn't work. I am at

    1. Thanks Otrantia/SecondhandRose. I've had a search on eBay for these for some time, but what that brings me usually are much larger "photobuttons" at least a couple of inches in diameter. At the moment I'm tending towards the view that not many of these have survived.

  4. Hi Brett,
    I was looking up info on a Victorian photo button so I could list it in my on-line shop. Thanks so much; so interesting to read the information you have compiled.
    Here is the button so you can look at it.

    1. Thanks Sultana. It's a nice photobutton, a slightly different design from mine, and I hope you find a buyer. Regards, Brett

  5. Mandel button Camera


Join my blog network
on Facebook