Leo Hendrick Baekerland was born in Belgium in 1863,
the son of a shoemaker. After studying chemistry at the University of
Ghent, he laid the foundations for his future achievements in both phenolics
and photography; one of his early photographic innovations was a method
of making photographic plates that could be developed underwater.
America beckoned to the young man who, in 1889, emigrated and began
work as a chemist for a photographic materials company. About two years
later, Baekerland became a frelance chemist; his first invention as
a freelance was Velox paper, which quickly became popular as it could
be developed in artificial light, rather than under a safelight. In
1899 the patent for Velox and the factory were purchased by George Eastman
for a sum rumoured to be abut one million dollars.
Baekerland returned to phenolic research. He discovered that resins
produced from phenol and formaldehyde, when heated under pressure and
with a catalyst, made a soft solid which could be moulded and hardened.
Alternatively the new substance could be powdered, pressed into shape
and heated until hard. This new substance was not conductive to electricity,
and resisted heat and corrosion. He patented it in 1907 and called it
It was to be used in the manufacture of a huge range of items, from
toasters to coffins (the coffins did not catch on), including a large
number of cameras and other photographic items Bakelite photographic
items are often easy to find and therefore frequently overlooked.
Bakelite cameras were made in many countries of the world, including
Australia, France, Argentina, U.S.A., Czechoslovakia, Great Britain
and Germany, and by some of the best-known names in photography, like
Kodak, and some of the least-known. Who has ever seen an Erac Mercury
I Pistol camera (c. 1938)? As may be expected from the name, the casing
is shaped like a pistol; the trigger is coupled to a Merlin camera which
is inside the Bakelite casing.
Many Bakelite cameras were very simple; Kodak made several of these.
The Hawkette cameras
are mottled brown Bakelite, and very attractive. The simple yet elegant
Baby Brownie is said to have sold 4 million, at one dollar each. It
was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague for Kodak and was sold from about
1934. Examples found now often have some deterioration of the viewfinder
which spoils their appearance.
Other cameras were more complicated; the Argus A series included and
A2 (c. 1939-50) and A2F (c. 1939-41) which has extinction meters, while
the Perflex Speed Candid (c. 1939) had an uncoupled rangefinder, extinction
meter, interchangeable lens capability and a focal plane shutter.
A special-purpose Bakelite camera, the Clinicamera, took plates. It
was intended for dental and medical work; the black camera was surrounded
by a reflector; illumination was provided by a flashbulb.
British companies made several of the well-known Bakelite cameras, including
one of the earliest for rollfilm, the Rajar No. 6 folding camera (c.
1929). Coronet supplied Bakelite cameras for about twenty years, with
the simple Cadet, Cameo and Captain, all available in the mid-thirties,
and the Coronet Ambassador of the mid-fifties. The Purma Special is
a British Bakelite camera from 1937. It is often claimed that this camera
was designed by an American, Raymond Loewy, or by his British design
studio - however, there are a number of camera collectors who dispute
this and I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the claim is true.
The Purma is most famous for its idiosyncratic shutter regulation, which
is assisted by gravity. To select a shutter speed, the camera must be
held in a certain way.
One of the most collected of the Bakelite cameras, the Coronet Midget,
dates from 1935. Made in several colours including bright red, green
and blue, this cameraa was made to take unperforated 16 mm. film on
The Coronet Midget was not the only camera to be made in colours, although
most Bakelite cameras were "any colour as long as it's black, or
maybe brown." Soho, in addition to the fairly common Pilot, which
is black, also made the Cadet and the Model B, both a reddish-brown
colour; the Model B has wine-red bellows. The Australian Sportshot Super
Twenty (c. 1938) is a simple camera with a folding finder for 120 or
620 roll-film. It is available in green, brown, maroon, blue-grey, or
black. The Bilora Boy, commonly seen in black, was also available in
brown with gold trim. The French Boumsell Photo-magic, taking 127 film,
was made in wine or black. The Kirk, a stereo camera taking six pairs
on 828 film, was made in brown As Argentinian camera, the Rex-Lujo (c.
1944-59), similar to the more common Photax was made in black or brown.
One of thee most unusual and rare of the Bakelite cameras is another
Argentinian camera, the Bislent, which took two images, one above the
other, on the film. Each image is 25 mm. x 36 mm. The shutters are not
linked, but are worked independently. The camera is otherwise undistinguished,
having a simple meniscus lens and single speed shutter.
The most commonly seen Bakelite camera
is surely the Brownie 127 camera, first made in about 1953 in England.
Watch out for the different designs on the front plate; the camera was
made up to about 1959. There is reputed to be a white version of this
camera which was unpopular as it got very dirty. I have never seen this
version advertised in any British magazines.
Not many cine cameras appear to have employed Bakelite, but one that
is fairly common and which features some lovely Art Deco-style moulding
on the front is the British Dekko. A very much more unusual camera is
the Kemco Homovie of the early 1930s. This uses 16 mm. film, but takes
four images on each frame in a "quartered" pattern. Frame
advance is thus a rather eccentric pattern, but film usage is four times
more efficient. The frame size resulting from this exercise in economy
is 3.65 mm. x 4.8 mm. The camera is fitted with a 15 mm. f/3.5 lens.
A projector was also available, capable of projectng "standard"
16 mm. films or Kemco-format films.
Cameras were not the only photographic items made from Bakelite; because
of the chemically-inert nature of Bakelite, it was popular for developing
tanks, and it was used in a range of other goods. In the late forties,
a trefoil-shaped developing tank was available, the trefoil being the
shape of he Bakelite company's logo. The Envoy 6 tank is probably seen
Agilux made the Agiscope enlarger from bakelite.
Kodak used Bakelite for a number of items
including a portable
enlarger, while several meters are housed in Bakelite cases. These
include the Chum (c. 1947), a brown selenium meter, the G.E.C., (c.
1947) a round selenium meter made in England, the Gossen Majosix from
the late fifties, the Lumy, a German extinction meter made in red or
brown, and the Metrawatt LC60 of the late 1930s, a shoe-mounting selenium
meter made for the Leica III. Zeiss made their first photoelectric meter
using Bakelite, the Helios, for use with the Contax.
Bakelite projectors include the Filmosto's Filmostor of 1952, the Magnajector
episcope of the late thirties and the Dux episocope of 1951.
While this article contains nothing like a full list of all photographic
Bakelite collectables, I hope it gives some idea of the variety and
choice available. It is hardly surprising that some collectors concentrate
on Bakelite to the exclusion of all else.
Pictures of other Bakelite (and early plastic) items
Ebner folding camera
Kodak Duaflex II
Kodak Brownie 127
Camera similar to Dixi
(has Bakelite lens mount and metal body)
Kodak pocket rangefinder
Nebro Visual exposure
Weston Cine Meter
Weston Master exposure
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