Flat Folding Kodak: 1895
Rear of Flat Folding Kodak showing roll film carrier attached to inside back.
Bottom of Flat Folding Kodak showing winding key and back locks.
Fitting the Flat Folding Kodak into Kodak's Timeline
Design evolution from Folding Kodet to Flat Folding Kodak to Cartridge Kodak
1895 Flat Folding Kodak
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The Cyclists and Tourist's Comrade
- Photographic News. August 23, 1895.

The Flat Folding Kodak is somewhat of a mystery. With only nine examples hidden in collections worldwide, it is a difficult camera to study and accurately document. (A tenth camera is known but it is incomplete and modified.) Primary information known today, albeit limited, comes from Brian Coe's book
Kodak Cameras: The First Hundred Years. At the time Coe documented the Flat Folding Kodak, he might have only seen one or two examples.

After acquiring this camera in late 2023, I began to conduct in depth research which started with contacting other owners to compare our examples and document variances.

The journey continues and a trove of new information has been uncovered which will be documented in a future paper. Without knowing how long it will take to complete the work, I felt it would benefit the collecting community to post some new information. Over time, this webpage will include additional details.

The Beginning In the 1890s, George Eastman was reshaping the photographic equipment landscape with innovative self-casing folding-bellows cameras that offered an alternative to more complicated, equivalent format field-view cameras. It started in 1890 with the Folding Kodak series (1890 to 1897), which established a new body pattern that influenced designs well into the 20th century. Eastman's quest to improve on the folding bellows design during the 1890s included the introduction of the Folding Kodet (1894 to 1897), which was sold concurrently with the Folding Kodaks.

But in 1893, Thomas Blair introduced a new, smaller roll film and plate camera called the "Blair 400"; a portable folding bellows design for 4 x 5 inch pictures on roll film and plates. For some reason, maybe as a way to get around Eastman's control of roll films and patents, Blair chose to sell his new camera in the United Kingdom (U.K.). The key to Blair's 400 camera was eliminating the need for a separate roll film carrier by moving the film spools into the camera body and positioning them on either side of the bellows.

Note: To distinguish between box camera roll film patterns and bellows cameras that accepted separate roll holders (i.e. the Eastman-Walker carrier), I refer to this new approach as a side-spool body design.

Blair's camera might have caught Eastman's attention because, back in 1891, Eastman commented that the company's long-term strategy was film
*, yet in 1893 Kodak did not have an equivalent side-spool body pattern. Given the success of the Folding Kodak cameras and a publicized commitment to film, it was inevitable that Eastman responded to the Blair 400.

By 1895, a new camera called the Flat Folding Kodak, made in Frank Brownell's U.S. factory, was selling exclusively in the U.K. market. As of this research, there are no records explaining why Eastman chose to release the camera in the U.K., but a plausible explanation would be to counter Blair's design with a competing design as well as open new market opportunities.

Advertisements from 1895 imply that Kodak's camera, without directly stating as such, was a simpler, less expensive alternative to the Blair 400: £7 vs. ~£12. Though somewhat similar in styling, the Kodak made up to 48 exposures on Eastman's Transparent Film while the Blair made 50 on 4¼" film. And in regards to size, the Flat Folding Kodak and Blair 400 are identical; both advertised as 6½" x 8½" x 3½", which is possibly another indicator that Eastman's camera was meant to compete with Blair's.

With the elimination of boxy film carriers, the back became the carrier which allowed the body to become significantly thinner; hence what might have inspired the name "Flat" Folding Kodak. The name might also have conveyed to customers a feeling of small size and portability.

* Eastman's long-term strategy: "... perfection of a system of film photography that would supplant the use of glass dry plates." - Affidavit of George Eastman filed 23 May 1891, Eastman vs. Blair (Reese Jenkins. Images and Enterprise. 1976. p.98.)

An Early Misconception At first glance, the Flat Folding Kodak looks like a mash-up of two Kodak portable bellows cameras; the earlier Folding Kodet series (1894 to 1897) and the later Cartridge Kodak cameras (1897 to 1907). It is the two-camera look that also makes a fascinating backstory that was shared by the former owner.

In the early 1970s, a U.S. dealer's son purchased this camera in England and brought it into the United States. It was sold to a prominent New York based dealer. The new owner felt it was probably a "fake" made of parts from a Cartridge Kodak and Folding Kodet. He returned it. The camera was then resold to another collector who found advertising proving the camera was real. The last owner acquired it in the late 1970s and kept it for over 40 years before selling it to me.

It is possible this particular camera is one of the first identified Flat Folding Kodaks. A couple cameras were probably in collections at the time as nothing more than unidentified mysteries. Without period ephemera, it isn't surprising that this camera was considered a fake because research was slow and difficult. As such, it made sense that a very experienced dealer had doubts. Anyhow, it must have taken a lot of energy and work in the 1970s to find an original advertisement.
Rear of camera shows how the roll film carrier is mounted on the inside back. Roll film spools are now pushed inside the body on either side of the bellows. Loading and unloading Eastman's Transparent Film was difficult and had to be done in the darkroom; which is one of the camera's weak points when compared to the new 1897 Cartridge Kodak Camera.
Camera bottom showing lever locks to release the back, winding key and film counter.
Dating the Flat Folding Kodak and Production There is some confusion about the availability dates. What should be taken into account is for the camera's advertising dates to match its catalogue listings. When looking at factory catalogues and advertisements, references for the Flat Folding Kodak only appear from 1895 to 1897. At this time, no 1894 references are known. Additionally, no 1896 references have been found but the camera's last listing is in the June 1897 Kodak U.K. catalogue. Several 1895 advertisements mention the camera as "new" or "introduced." Differing opinions about the camera's market presence, i.e. 1894, is more than likely a misinterpretation of information from Kodak's Production Order Book.

As background, Kodak maintained a ledger that tracked equipment "orders." Even though the Flat Folding Kodak was advertised from 1895 to 1897, Kodak's
Production Order Book has entries totaling 400 "ordered" cameras only for the years 1894 and 1895. It is important to note that orders do not equate to actual camera production; yet the Production Order Book has a December 13, 1894 entry stating the initial order of 100 cameras as "First shipment." This implies the cameras were being readied for the 1895 model year and shipped to the London office: Eastman Photographic Materials Co. Ltd.

For 1895, the book includes two order entries for an additional 300 cameras: February (100) and November (200). It is possible that the second order of 200 cameras in November might indicate the earlier February orders were built. Otherwise, there is no documentation that all 300 cameras in the two 1895 orders were manufactured. But there is circumstantial evidence that several cameras in collections with improved features are from the 1895 orders.

Production Improvements Information graciously provided from other collectors gave me an opportunity to closely examine and compare cameras. At this time, a detailed analysis uncovered five build improvements. Of the improvements, the most important appears to be a bellows modification from square to chamfered corners. Chamfered corners wear significantly less than square corners. As a note, most of Kodak's production moved to chamfered corners after 1895.

In comparing the improvements (details to be provided in the forthcoming white paper), I was able to categorize the camera into three types: Early, Transitional, and Improved. Unlike the Folding Kodak series which includes a name change using the term "Improved," Kodak did not update Flat Folding Kodak marketing information to disclose improvements and design changes. For example, all advertising through 1897 has illustrations of square cornered bellows even though five of the Flat Folding Kodaks have chamfered bellows.

Fitting into Kodak's Timeline To fully understand the camera, I mapped it into a timeline of Kodak's early folding bellows cameras and discovered that the Flat Folding Kodak is a pivotal design. It links Kodak's early portable bellows patterns to the future: more specifically (when looking back at past designs) it bridges a gap between the Folding Kodaks and Folding Kodets to Cartridge Kodaks.
When placed on a timeline comparing early folding Kodak cameras and the Blair 400, the Flat Folding Kodak's side-spool design represents a shift in Kodak's major roll film designs from 1897 on. The side-spool body pattern appears to establish a new paradigm for nearly all future folding-bellows roll film Kodak cameras, which include horizontal and popular vertical designs. (Note: Though side-spool designs influenced by the Flat Folding Kodak, the smaller format 1897 Folding Pocket Kodak and 1899 No.2 Folding Bulls-Eye cameras are not included to keep the chart simple.)

In summary, rather than seeing the Flat Folding Kodak as an obsolete design, I look at the camera as a way Kodak proved the practicality and simplicity of side-spool designs.

Bringing the Flat Folding Kodak to Market The time it took Eastman's teams to bring the Flat Folding Kodak to market as a potential response to the Blair 400 appears to be quick. Taking into account the time to create a new design, the Flat Folding Kodak could have been in development from mid-1893 to early-1894; considering the initial order entered into Kodak's Production Order Book was shipped at the end of 1894. The end result was a camera functionally similar, simpler, and less expensive than what existed in the market. This implies a fast development cycle for a release-to-market by 1895.

One method to reduce the time-to-market and manufacturing costs is to copy existing camera parts as well as simplifying the design. The graphic shown here illustrates how early Kodak folding bellows cameras share their pedigrees through similarly (re)designed components. The final body phase (Cartridge Kodak) is Kodak's first large-scale production side-spool design.
What's Next Research continues. When completed, this post will be updated. There is still a lot being uncovered with some surprises. Stay tuned!

Acknowledgements: I want to thank collectors Jos Erdkamp, Ruud Hoff, Gerjo Quicken, David Purcell, and Todd Gustavson (George Eastman Museum Technology Curator) for providing detailed information and pictures of their cameras. More of their contributions will be included in the future paper.
Flat Folding Kodak, 1895-97
Eastman Kodak Company. Rochester, NY