Wooden Field Cameras of the United States: 1870's-1930's

[above: a Rochester Optical Co. American Challenge Swivel Bed Camera 4x5" (1881-1887)]

From 1870-1930, an explosion in field camera design occurred in the United States.  Rival firms patented designs for beds, reversing mechanisms and plate-holders at a breakneck pace.  The result is documented here: a database of wood and brass wet-plate and dry-plate field view cameras manufactured in the United States between 1870-1930.  Leather-covered hand and stand cameras have not been included; a database of them would have an even greater number of models and variations.

Two ways to browse: 1) by manufacturer (links on left side of page): choose a manufacturer and click the thumbnail of the model; 2) by catalog: choose a catalog here - within the catalog images are hot spots linking to the model shown in the catalog.

Dating American view cameras:   Approximate dates of manufacture are given.  Dates of manufacture have been compiled from original catalogs and literature present at the George Eastman House and private sources.  If a model has been specifically introduced (as stated in company literature) or if a complete run of catalogs shows a definite starting or ending date, that date will be indicated without qualification.  A starting or ending which merely represents the first or last appearance in a catalog, which may not be from a complete run of catalogs, will be indicated as circa (c.).

Construction:  a number of trends in woods used, finishes, hardware, general construction, construction details, lenses, carrying cases can be discerned during this period of view camera variability.

Lenses and Shutters:  realizing that the cameras have attached to them a variety of lenses and shutters from the era, separate indexes and thumbnails have been provided for lenses and shutters, as well as information on their appearance in catalogs and patents.  For the most part, these images of lenses and shutters leave something to be desired, since they were pulled from existing images that were much larger.  Some of them are also out of focus, since the original purpose of the image was to illustrate the camera.  While pulling catalog data for lenses or shutters, it seemed logical to pull data for other lenses or shutters advertised from the same company; these entries refer to lenses or shutters for which no photos yet exist, but usually an engraving is available.

A note on variations: Some models of view cameras were manufactured over many years, sometimes by different companies, or in different factories.  These factors give rise to variations in appearance, design, or details.  Some of these variations can be followed from year to year in advertisements or catalogs.  Others are merely mysterious deviations in construction.  Still others arise from the use or mixing of old parts to create a camera which, in the view of the maker, was just as much the desired model as would be a camera that matched the catalog exactly.  As significant differences of either type are observed, I have called attention to them, by arbitrarily naming them Variation 1, Variation 2, etc., attempting to list them in approximate chronological order of their likely period of occurrence. These designations only serve to separate the photos and engravings shown here, and may change over time if a new, earlier variation is discovered.

Images of H.H. Bennett, Kilbourn City, Wisconsin: Scenic stereographs of the Wisconsin Dells, Devil's Lake, Milwaukee, Chicago, Wisconsin and Minnesota; miscellaneous images of the Bennett family & identified portraits.  H.H. Bennett is one of the premier stereograph producers, who worked from the late 1860's through the 1900's, leaving a legacy of more than a thousand views.

Site Updates ~Feb-2014 and following:

Updates to catalogs include both an .html version (web page) as well as a .pdf version.  The .html version consists of a web page containing many files: one image file for each pair of catalog pages scanned.  The .pdf version consists of one file only; this file contains water-marked images of the entire catalog, and requires the Adobe pdf reader or equivalent to view it.

Cameras: Economic, Elm City, and Leader cameras have been difficult.  Two of these, Elm City and Leader, have been tentatively identified with American Optical or Scovill cameras, based on their list price compared to the price of known camera models.


Dime novel cover, below: It is 1888.  You skillfully blend into the crowd in your impeccable striped jacket and stylish top hat.  Your steely gaze transfixes your unsuspecting quarry as your finger poises in anticipation over the shutter button.  No-one notices, least of all the criminal, as you document the crime using your trusty Blair Hawkeye Detective Camera.