Smile and Say Cheese

Two women laugh as they enjoy a day swimming at the lake

Smile and Say Cheese

1900s Kodak Brownie ad
When the Kodak Brownie debuted, it made photography affordable for most people

Photography has come a long way in the past 200 years. It’s hard to believe in today’s age of the selfie, photo sharing apps and Internet photo albums that there was a time when a person might only have been photographed once in a lifetime.

We forget that not that long ago, digital cameras, one-hour film processing, 35mm film and Polaroids were state of the art technology.

The ability to photograph vacations, birthday parties, Christmas morning and any other moment people felt was worth recording became possible in the 1890s with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie.

What is a brownie?  “‘Brownies’ were good-natured little spirits or goblins of the fairy order,” The Ladies’ Home Journal said in 1892. “They were all little men, and appeared only at night to perform good and helpful deeds or enjoy harmless pranks while weary households slept, never allowing themselves to be seen by mortals.”

A Short History of Photography

World War One Kodak ad
“There’s cheer in the pictures from home”

The first successful photography appeared in the 1820s. The photographs took days to develop.

It wasn’t until 1839, with the introduction of the daguerreotype, that photos could be processed much faster, and photography became a practical activity.   However, exposure time was still very long, and subjects had to sit still for several minutes.  This is why some subjects appear blurry in old photographs and why no one smiled.

Daguerreotypes used glass plates, not film. The photographs were expensive, and most people didn’t have the funds to be photographed often. Some weren’t photographed until death.

Many improvements followed, including color photography, and in 1884 film was introduced. Modern photography was born.

The Birth of the Snapshot

A girl posing with her Kodak Brownie camera
A girl posing with her Kodak Brownie camera

When the Brownie was introduced, it made photography possible for the masses. The camera was a simple device: a cardboard box, film and a lens. It sold for $1. A roll of film, capable of taking six photos, sold for 15 cents. Processing was 40 cents.

In 1901, the Brownie Number 2 debuted. It cost $2. An aluminum body version also was available as well was a color photography version. Brownie Number 2 remained in production until the 1930s.

The Brownie is credited with creating the snapshot. Exposure speeds had increased enough for photographers to capture everyday moments. The shorter exposure time meant a photographer’s subjects no longer had to sit still for minutes at a time and could to smile.

Suddenly anyone could be a photographer and document their lives.

During World War I, the snapshot allowed soldiers to take photos of their loved ones with them, and it allowed those on the home front to keep soldiers updated on what was going on at home.

1910s Snapshots

Here are six snapshots taken during the 1910s, many no doubt using the Brownie.

Two women laugh as they enjoy a day swimming at the lake
Two women laugh as they enjoy a day swimming at the lake
Two young women being silly as one wheels the other around in a wheelbarrow
Two young women being silly as one wheels the other around in a wheelbarrow
A soldier enjoying a sandwich
A soldier enjoying a sandwich
A toddler trying to look tough
A toddler trying to look tough
A mailroom of a turn-of-the-20th-century business
A mailroom of a turn-of-the-20th-century business
A couple dances in the foreground as a crowd attends a community event
A couple dances in the foreground as a crowd attends a community event

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Updated: 15 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

3 thoughts on “Smile and Say Cheese

  1. Yes, I enjoy looking at old photographs. There are so many things about them that make them interesting. I love the picture of the little boy that you included. He looks so very serious.

    1. I like the ones of people having fun. It breaks the stereotype that our ancestors were so stodgy and serious. Those serious looks in old photographs were the result of a slow exposure time, not people’s attitudes.

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