Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Sepia Saturday 169: Keeping a Kodak Story, the Autographic camera

Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett & Kat Mortensen

The image prompt from Sepia Saturday this week depicts a swarm of photographers framing shots of the Washington Monument, the Tidal Basin and cherry trees in full bloom in April 1922. My focus will be on the instrument rather than the practitioner.

Image courtesy of Google Patents
US Patent 1184941 issued to H.J Gaisman, 30 May 1916

Between 1912 and 1917, a young backyard inventor by the name of Henry J. Gaisman was granted several patents for photographic cameras. These improvements allowed the user to "write" a brief caption permanently on the film through a small window in the back of the camera, most importantly, at the time the picture was taken. Gaisman stated that his work on this device arose from the fact that "it annoyed him to return from a vacation trip with pictures that he could not identify," an irritation familiar to most of us who have taken more than a couple of snapshots.

Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections
"The Autographic Kodaks"
Detail from 1914 Advertisement by Eastman Kodak Co.
Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections

In July 1914 George Eastman of Eastman Kodal Ltd. paid Gaisman the "remarkable" sum of $300,000 for the patent rights. Within three months several Kodak camera models (1A, 3 and 3A) were on sale, modified accordingly, a special red paper/carbon-backed Autographic Film Cartridge also available in the appropriate film sizes (Coe, 1978).

Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections
"Make Your Kodak Autographic"
1914 Advertisement by Eastman Kodak Co.
Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections

In their marketing blurb Eastman Kodak described the Autographic as "the most important photographic Development in two decades." Not only was the feature "incorporated in all of the most important Kodak models," but they also supplied Autographic Backs at very reasonable prices, which could be retro-fitted to at least ten different models, as listed in a number of advertisements.
Prices from $9.00 to $65.00. If you already have a Kodak we can sell you a separate Autographic back. Prices $2.50 up.

Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections
"The Autographic Kodak" - a negative image
Detail from 1914 Advertisement by Eastman Kodak Co.
Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections

The advertisements emphasized the usefulness of the Autographic feature, and some included examples of the negatives and prints produced by the camera:
Every negative that is worth making is worth a date and title. The places you visit - interesting dates and facts about the children, their age at the time the pictures were made - the autographs of friends you photograph - these notations add to the value of every picture you make ... The amateur photographer who wants to improve the quality of his work can make notations on his negatives, of the light conditions, stop and exposure.

Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage CollectionImage © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection
No 3A Autographic Kodak Special Model B
Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection

Kodak claimed great success with the Autographic models, in an 1915 advertisement apparently taken in by their own marketing strategies and hype (in West, 2000):
The Autographic feature has scored a hit, and a big one. At first, perhaps, the interest was mild ... now, in considerably less than a year, it is pretty hard to sell a camera without the Autographic Feature.
It would have been more accurate to say that it was pretty hard to find a Kodak camera without the Autographic feature as a standard feature.

Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections
"The Day of His Going"
1918 Advertisement by Eastman Kodak Co.
Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections

After the United States joined the War in April 1917, Kodak urged wives to capture the day of their husband's departure for Europe on film, not forgetting the date and title, permanently recorded on the negative. The Vest Pocket Kodak Autographic, reputedly used by the famed Ansel Adams on his second visit to Yellowstone in 1917, was even marketed as "The Soldier's Camera." The marketing focus was now on nostalgia rather than usefulness.

Image © and courtesy of Kristin Cleage
"?13/2/18 On Barron's Farm" - Paper print (116 x 78mm; 4¼" x 2½")
by an unidentified photographer using A116 film and a No. 1A Autographic Kodak or a No. 2A Folding Autographic Brownie camera
Image © and courtesy of Kristin Cleage

Fellow Sepian contributer Kristin Cleage posted this print of a rural family on her blog Finding Eliza a couple of years ago, and kindly assented to my using it to illustrate this article. It is typical of the prints that could be produced from Autographic film, the black left hand border containing a somewhat overexposed caption which is rather hard to read, perhaps indicative of a problem that was sometimes encountered with the Autographic.

No 1A Autographic Kodak (L), No 2A Folding Autographic Brownie (R)
Images © and courtesy of Historic Camera

Assuming that it is a contact print, the size corresponds to A116 film, which was used by both the No. 1A Autographic Kodak and the No. 2A Folding Autographic Brownie cameras, shown above. Kristin believes it was mostly likely taken at the farm of Oscar Barron in Elmore, Alabama, where her great-grandmother Annie Graham was working and living with her four children in 1920.

Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection
"Old Bill" - Paper print (40 x 60mm; 1⅝" x 2½")
by an unidentified photographer, undated
using A127 film and a Vest Pocket Kodak Autographic camera
Image © and courtesy of the Tauranga Heritage Collection

Another example of an Autographic print, this one probably taken in the late 1910s or early 1920s and possibly a copy, is from the Gunson-Stewart Album in the Tauranga Heritage Collection. The identity of the subject is unknown, although "Old Bill" could be William Nassau Stewart (1873-1954) of Katikati, maternal uncle of a former owner of the album.

Image © and courtesy of Historic Camera
Vest Pocket Kodak Autographic Special
Image © and courtesy of Historic Camera

Unless it is an enlargement rather than a contact print, the print size indicates A127 film, which was used in the Vest Pocket Kodak Autographic Special. Autographic cameras were on sale in New Zealand from at least as early as October 1915 (Advertisement, BOP Times, 1915).

Image © and courtesy of Fred the Oyster
"EAP" Kodak Autographic Print
Image © and courtesy of Fred the Oyster & Flickr

One of the few Autographic images that I did find is this example from Fred the Oyster's Flickr feed, which he scanned (and presumably inverted) from a negative purchased in a junk shop. I have seen very few examples of prints with the Autographic-style caption, and a trawl on the internet produces a similarly meagre catch.

Well known New Zealand photohistorian Bill Main (1990) wrote:
A type of camera which turns up regularly on our doorstep for our museum at the Centre is the Autographic Kodak in all its various shapes and sizes. The paradox of this is the fact that perhaps the rarest item in our collection happens to be photos made with the distinctive Autographic inscription on the print surrounds ... Why this innovation never appealed to the millions of Autographic camera users needs a lot of analysis and study.

and others have described similar experiences (Anon, 2001):
Over the years, at flea markets and antique stores, I've searched through boxes of old snapshots, but I rarely find Autographic prints with notations in the margins. If my experience is typical, then it makes me wonder if the Autographic feature was used very often?

Image © and courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections

Write it on the film - at the time.

   Make every negative more interesting; more valuable by permananently recording, at the time of exposure, the all important - who, when, where. It's a simple and almost instantaneous process with an

Autographic Kodak

Ask your dealer, or write us for catalogue

EASTMAN KODAK CO., Rochester, N.Y., The Kodak City

Eastman Kodak advertisement, 1917

With a little perseverance they can be found - Getty Images has a couple of examples from c.1918 and 1920 - but they are often referred to as a rarity. Judging by the number of Autographic cameras now available on eBay, between 1914 and the late 1930s, when they were discontinued, a huge number (reputedly millions) were sold, so why are there so few extant prints with the caption selvedge? There are several possible explanations:

  • There are many more examples, both in private collections and on the web, but they have not been recognised as emanating from Autographic cameras. Searching the web with Google Images retrieves hundreds of images of cameras, but very few photographs produced by them.
  • When prints are scanned for display on the web, the tendency is to remove framing and borders for aesthetic reasons. Many captions may also have been removed in the process, making them impossible to identify.
  • Despite Eastman Kodak's initial enthusiasm for the innovation, it is conceivable that the majority of Autographic users over the two decades that they were produced just couldn't be bothered to caption each and every snapshot they took.
The text of this Kodak advertisement from 1915 suggests, however, that most prints never have included the captions, even though they may have been inscribed on the negative:
The Autographic records are made on the margins between the exposures. It is not intended that they be made to appear in the prints themselves but that they be simply preserved as an authoritative reference. It is obvious, however, that they may be shown on the print itself - if desired.
Sadly the bulk of the negatives from films exposed during the Autographic era have probably been discarded decades ago, so we may never know.

Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection
Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Special
Image © and courtesy of Tauranga Heritage Collection

If you have any snapshots in your collection, either prints or original negatives, that include the typical Autographic caption, I'd be keen to hear from you, and perhaps to share images of them in a future Photo-Sleuth follow-up. Please email me.

For those readers wanting to match prints and negatives to cameras, this table may be useful. I've also created a Autographic Print Format PDF template with the various format sizes, which may be downloaded and printed out. It's always worth bearing in mind that not all prints are contact prints, i.e. identical in size to the negative from which they were printed. Enlargements were also offered to customers, even in Victorian and Edwardian times, but the vast majority of prints that were produced prior to the 1930s seem to be the much more affordable contact prints.

Film SizePrint/Negative SizeCamera Model(s)
A1162½" x 4¼" (64 x 108 mm)1A, 2A
A1183¼" x 4¼" (83 x 108 mm)3
A1202¼" x 3¼" (57 x 83 mm)1,2
A1223¼" x 5½" (83 x 140 mm)3A
A1234" x 5" (102 x 127 mm)4 (with conversion back)
A1264¼" x 6½" (108 x 165 mm)4A (with conversion back)
A1271⅝" x 2¼" (41 x 57 mm)Vest Pocket
A1302⅞" x 4⅞" (73 x 124 mm)2C


Kristin Cleage and Fiona Kean kindly assented to my use of Autographic prints, the former from her personal archives, the latter from the Tauranga Heritage Collection. Fiona also went to some trouble to assist with obtaining photographs of several Autographic cameras from the collection, for which I am most grateful.


Duke University Libraries Digital Collections, Emergence of Advertising in America Collection.

Eastman Autographic film, on Early Photography

Advertisement, Bay of Plenty Times, Volume XLIV, Issue 6506, 6 October 1915, Page 4, courtesy of Papers Past.

Anon (1914) $300,000 Won by a Young Inventor, The New York Times, 10 July 1914.

Anon (2001) Eastman Kodak Size A118 Autographic Film Cartridge, Scott's Photographic Collection.

Chocrón, Daniel Jiménez (2013) No. 1 Autographic Kodak Junior, on From the Focal Plane to Infinity.

Coe, Brian (1978) Cameras, from Daguerreotypes to Instant Pictures, United States: Crown Publishers, 240pp.

Gustavson, Todd (2009) Camera, A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital, New York: Sterling, 360pp.

Macpherson, Alan M D (nd) Kodak - No. 2 Autographic Brownie, on Classic Cameras.

Main, Bill (1990) Kodak Autographic Special, New Zealand Centre for Photography, 10 Cameras Exhibition [retrieved 12 March 2013 from cache on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine].

West, Nancy Martha (2000) "Let Kodak Keep the Story" - Narrative, Memory, and the Selling of the Autographic Camera during World War I, in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, University of Virginia Press, Ch 6, p.166-199.


  1. It seems like it would be a good idea. Wonder why it wasn't.

  2. Interesting....I will keep an eye out for such negatives. I feel sure I had use of such an old camera as a "toy" when I was little.

    The advert "The day of his going" left me feeling uncomfortable. I can't imagine such an advert would have gone down well in UK by 1918.

  3. The autographic feature sounds useful, but I guess people didn't want to bother with it.

  4. I can't believe I'm reading about the autographic feature on the day after I puzzled over some scribbling I noticed on the edge of some old family photos. I thought maybe the pictures were at the end of the film and it was something not cut off properly. Now I want to look at them again and try to read what they say. Most of the photos glued in an album are dated 1918-20, which corresponds exactly with what you've explained.

  5. A very interesting post, Brett about a camera feature that I never knew about. Now if we could get a digital camera to do the same, that would be something.

  6. I agree with Bob; it's what I clearly needed as I failed to record, even by scribbling on the back, what, who or when, and am often left wildly (or intelligently) guessing.

  7. As soon as I read your very interesting post I ran down to the junk room to look for an autographic camera in my vast collection of stuff. And sure enough I had one. It's the No. 3 A. There's the opening on the back, and a space for a pencil (which is missing). I bought this camera some time in the 60s and someone told me that you could still get film for it. So I bought some film and took some pictures and much to my disappointment the photos looked current, not sepia at all. I really expected them to look old!!
    But I never noticed the autographic opening on the back. Now I'm going to look for autographed photos. It's such a great idea but I can see that people thought it was too much trouble to stop and write a note after each snap.

  8. How interesting, I've never seen one and yet that opening looks vaguely familiar so maybe I have and not known what it was. Its curious how it never caught on, guess people lost the pencil quite soon. Of course as a result of this post all Sepians will be now on the look out for the photos, I know I will.

  9. A fascinating post, Brett, with lots of useful information. I've been interested in which cameras were used for different photo forms, in part for the potential clues that knowledge of the camera might offer. I suspect that the lack of good examples of the Autographic photos are like the multitude of unused features on digital cameras. Who could remember to have a sharp pencil ready? And what should you write? Wait, do we write before or after we snap the shutter? Oh Gee, I've advanced the film again, can I rewind it? What's this button do? Where's the instruction manual?

  10. My mother used a 1930 Kodak nearly all her life. A lot of interesting information; With their success they became "blase".

  11. Fascinating, I have always had a passing interest in old cameras and have occasionally been tempted into buying one, not for use but just for the look of them as objects. The National Media Museum is just down the road and they have a massive collection of old cameras, but I have to say that they do not seem to make the most of them in terms of displays.

  12. What a big market emotions are. Kodak certainly used the knowledge well. Love the photo of Barron's Farm, Old Bill and the negative looks very interesting.

  13. This is so interesting. My father-in-law, Troy, must have had one of these cameras when he was stationed in Guam during WWII. I thought that he wrote on the photos after they were developed, but now I don't think so.

    What an article, Brett. Thank you for your hard work on this.

    Kathy M.

  14. Oh my gosh, did you get any sleep this week too? What a fact filled post of some really great devices too, even though we sure have come a really long way, so much more improved, still back then these were all something very special to own I'm sure! Bravo on your hard work here.

  15. A fascinating post. I'd never heard of an autographic feature.

  16. A fascinating lesson in the development of photography.

  17. Cropping Even Happened Then!Which is a shame as the autographic feature gave the photographer a voice of sorts.

  18. Kristin + Postcardy - Judging by the number of unannotated photos in practically all collections, perhaps because the majority of people just can't be bothered.

    Nigel - Actually, I felt uncomfortable about many of the Kodak adverts, which rather played on emotions. I suppose they are tame compared to today's "in your face" ad campaigns, but I don't like those either.

    Wendy - How exciting - that was just the response that I hoped to elicit from readers. I hope you'll share some of the photos with us in due course. If you scan them including the full extent of the print and provide some measurements, I may be able to identify the camera with which they were most likely taken.

    Bob + Little Nell - I hadn't heard of it either until fairly recently, and I think it's largely forgotten. I am hoping that now they know about it several readers will find examples in their collections. Of course there were photos that added a date to the corner, but that kind of ruined the prints, I felt. I think I've read of technology on cameras that lets you add metadata to an image after taking it, but it must still be rather fiddly, detracting from the whole "point and shoot/click" ethos.

    Nancy - Nice that you have an Autographic that's still working - the 3A is a nice large format camera, designed to produce 'postcard' size contact prints. If it is the Special, rather than the Junior, it will have an excellent lens and a rangefinder. Sadly, you can't get 122 film very easily any more. Did you use B+W or colour film, I wonder? I have read that the highly sensitive colour films of recent years don't work well with the lenses of those old cameras.

    Joy - In the collection of cameras that I'm currently helping to document, most of the Autographics have lost their stylus. Yes, I hope that Sepians will come up with some more examples.

    Mike Brubaker - Yes, I've started delving into the whole "print format => camera type" question recently, and it can indeed provide a wealth of information, relevant or not. With the development of better and better quality film, print enlargements (as opposed to contact prints) became more and more common, and eventually the norm. I'm currently researching another article on Box Brownies, so look out for that in due course.

    Titania - I'm guessing that by 1930, the Autographic feature had pretty much gone from Kodak cameras. Having used 35mm SLRs for most of my life, I changed to digital about 10 years ago, and had a Kodak until fairly recently, when I upgraded to a digital SLR. It wasn't a bad camera.

    Alan - Judging by the number of old cameras available on eBay, most of them were prized possessions to their owners. Sadly, even though many may still be in working condition, the film is unavailable, and the means by which to process them even more difficult to find. I suppose it is a tricky thing, designing museum displays which capture the attention of as wide an audience as possible.

    Hazel - As fascinating as the captions on the Barron's Farm and Old Bill are, I think it's also opened up Pandora's Box to some extent. The tantalising glimpse of life hinted at by the caption raises so many more questions, as I'm sure Kristin will testify to.

  19. Kathy M. - I hope you too will share these photographs if they are indeed Autographics.

    Karen S. - Well, as you can tell from the time elapsed since Kristin's photo originally appeared on her blog, the article has been gestating for quite a while. I agree that the cameras were indeed prized possessions - Titania's mother thought so too.

    Boobook & ScotSue - I learnt a lot about the Autographic feature and various print formats during the course of researching this post too.

    Tony - Yes, I think we have to assume it did. Digital cropping, while perhaps rendering photographs more aesthetically pleasing, also has the effect of removing a lot of pertinent information - in effect, much of that voice which you talk about is lost, even though it may not consist of words.

    I did test a few keywords and indeed, little comes up...
    But I had an idea.
    (You know the kind I get...)
    What if most buyers of those cameras [quickly] lost/misplaced the stylus for making such inscription? Was it available as a separate purchase? Are there statistics on those sales?

    Or, as it is most likely, was this only a marketing "wetdream" by those in charge of marketing at Kodak? Such things happen, when people come up with what seems to them a good idea but the idea falls flat or even worse, causes controversy. Ad agencies are funny sometimes. I should know, this was I was meant to do but change my mind about that... but I still know people in the business and I've been to a few focus groups to test those ideas. Advertising is not an exact science. It has to promote something while striking a chord with its target audience. No easy feat!!

    Again, great post!!
    And in my quick research, I came across something VERY similar to my grandfather's camera, which I threw away!! I could cry now....
    Oh well!!

  21. PS:
    I think the only one who's happy about all of this is the one who sold his patent for $300 000. Big money for the time!!

  22. Fellow Sepian Anyjazz has posted four Autographic photos on his LostGallery blog here.

  23. Bruno - No use crying over spilt milk, or the potential fortune you might have missed out on. You may well be right about the stylus being easily lost - I can't quote sales statistics, but I can tell you that only three out of the nine Autographic cameras that I've catalgued so far in my locxal museum collection still has the stylus attached. Mr Gaisman was also partner with Mr Gillette ... yes, THE Gillette. "He retired from the Gilette Safety Razor Corporation in 1938, at which time he was reputed to be worth more than 25 million dollars."

  24. Wow, you learn something new every day! I have never heard of this type of camera and will be on the lookout for these types of photos.

    I wish I had something like this when I took over 4000 photos on my trip to Scotland 3 1/2 years ago. I tried each night to document where I had been each day, but when I returned home after 2 weeks still had trouble identifying all my photos. :-(

    1. I have a similar problem, with old photographs, but I do have a good memory, so am slowly going through the archives and adding dates, comments, etc. where I can.

  25. You have truly enlightened me. I had no idea this even existed. And I too wonder why the images are never found. I will keep an eye open for them.

    My current little snapshot camera from Nikon has a little "stylus" that allows writing on the digital images. I have never used it.

    1. And thank you, T+L, for enlightening me about the Nikon Coolpix stylus, which I'd not come across. It seems they have brought the stylus back - how exciting.

    2. I think the problem with the Nikon one is that, unlike the old Kodak, it pretty much just puts "graffiti" on your image. It really doesn't feel useful as a way to label images.

  26. I found another print that included the notation. I added it to the original page featuring these. You are welcome to use if it is interesting.

    1. Wonderful find, anyjazz, although you'd think that the photographer might have written their names, rather than the dissociative "Twins." I'm planning a follow-up article which will include those that have cropped up since writing this one, so your contributions will be very much appreciated.

  27. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. Big thanks for the useful info. best camera in 2020


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