The Universal Vitar – a Camera Made from Spare Parts

The Universal Vitar

The latest acquisition to my collection is the Universal Vitar, a 35mm full-frame camera that was produced by Universal in 1951.  At this point the company was veering toward bankruptcy as a result of supplier problems, bad luck, and some really awful management decisions.  You’ll have to read Cynthia Repinski’s book for the details of this debacle, as I can’t bring myself to repeat the story.

Suffice it to say that by 1951, the Universal Camera Company had debts that dated back to shortly after the war, having liquidated most of their finished goods at a near-loss, and still didn’t have the funds to buy materials to make new products.  Their chief engineer and visionary, George Kende, had resigned in 1948.  They needed a new line of cameras to sell, but they had practically no resources with which to make it happen. 

What they did have in abundance were leftover parts from the production of previous camera models that hadn’t sold as expected.  So it was decided to construct “new” models from the parts available in inventory.  They designed three cameras from spare parts: a 35mm full-frame camera, a 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 TLR, and an 8mm cine camera. 

The 35mm camera that resulted was the Vitar.  It was made from the Bakelite body of the Buccaneer, the viewfinder/extinction meter and hot shoe from the Meteor, the shutter from the Uniflex I, and a 50mm f/3.5 Tricor lens that appears to be the Buccaneer lens mounted on the Uniflex shutter, possibly with parts from the Roamer.   The nameplates are all new, but apart from that the camera is entirely constructed from parts on hand.   

The Uniflex contributed its shutter

The Roamer may have contributed lens elements or mounting rings, but not the shutter as stated by Repinski

The Vitar definitely looks like a camera built from spare parts.  It has a shutter that not coupled to the film wind mechanism in any way.  Thus, there is no double exposure prevention.  The shutter release is mounted on the lens/shutter assembly rather than on the camera body.  The lack of a body-mounted shutter release is a glaring omission for a camera made as late as 1951.  Not only is this odd for a camera of the time, but it’s especially odd for a camera produced by this company: both the Corsair and Buccaneer had body-mounted releases, and their design was patented.   Apparently, there were no parts available to build the more sophisticated body-mounted release, so the hole in the camera body where the release button was intended to go was simply plugged with a chunk of aluminum. 

The Meteor provided the viewfinder, extinction meter and hot shoe

Vitar's body and probably her lens came from the Buccaneer

Another sign of slapdash construction becomes apparent with removal of the front lens assembly, revealing that the unit is shimmed in place using an old nameplate from the lens of a Roamer (or maybe a Uniflex).   

A close look at the Uniflex confirms that it is the source of Vitar's shutter

Top view of the Vitar shows the plugged hole for shutter release

And yet, despite it all, the camera actually performed quite well.  I corresponded with Sam Sherman, a fellow collector, back in 2000 on the subject of Unversal cameras, and it turned out that he had owned a Vitar at the age of 11.  He wrote:

“I sold my first commercial photos to Dance Magazine at the age of 11, which I shot with a Universal Vitar, a fine camera and far superior to the more famous Argus A series and others. “

Sam, who was a producer and distributor of films in Hollywood for many years, had at that time about 15 Universal items in his collection.  And he’s right about the quality of the lens compared to the Argus A.  Universal had their own optical shop, and they invented most of the lens grinding equipment used in their own production – the same equipment they used to produce binoculars during the war.   Argus was said to buy their lens elements in bulk, and the Argus A’s were famous for producing fuzzy negatives.

I got this camera from another fellow collector, Wayne Cogan.  Wayne gave me the Vitar in trade for a couple of cameras that I suspect he really didn’t need, simply because he wanted me to have it for my collection.  It’s a rare item, especially since it came in its original box with instructions.  I’m hoping to get the camera refurbished to the extent that it can be used to take a few shots – I’d really like to evaluate its performance for myself.  But the shutter is not working at the moment, and neither is the film wind mechanism, so I’ll need some help with the details.  Anyone out there know anything about the 4-speed Synchromatic shutter? 

The camera with box and manual

Anyhow, thanks to Sam and Wayne for encouragement and help.  Merry Christmas to all you camera collectors out there, and may the New Year bring you new additions to your collections!


The Mercury II – Taking Pictures with a 63-Year Old “Classic”

The Universal Mercury II - c.1946-1952

Most of the cameras discussed thus far are not usable anymore, either because of the lack of suitable film, or simply because the cameras themselves are too decrepit to function properly.  The Mercury II is one of a few exceptions; it uses standard 35mm film, has interchangeable lenses and a very durable, accurate shutter.   So, this post isn’t just about the history of the camera; it’s about how it performs today.


The term “classic” isn’t often used to describe a camera made by Universal, but in this case it is appropriate.  The 1946 Mercury II is, without a doubt, the camera for which this company will be remembered.  The post-war revamp of the original Mercury Model CC, the Mercury II had features that were designed to bring the camera up to date and increase its market appeal.  These included:

  • “Designed for color” coated Tricor lens, built in the Universal optical shop.  Pre-war lenses had been purchased, not made in-house.  Coated lenses included the 35mm f/2.7 Tricor and the 35mm f/3.5 Tricor
  • Enlarged body design and inclusion of a rewind knob to enable the camera to accept standard 35mm film cassettes.  This feature brought the Mercury into the real world of amateur photography, permitting the use of a great variety of film types and speeds
  • A film reminder dial on the back
  • Redesigned accessories including a clip-on extinction meter with a longer eyepiece extension to accommodate the repositioned accessory shoe, and a redesigned eveready case.  The case is important because the new body design did not include strap lugs of any kind

Strangely absent from the accessories line-up were:

  • A redesigned rangefinder to fit the new camera body.  The rangefinder for the Mercury Model CC didn’t fit, and it was left to Spiratone to market a rangefinder for the Merc II.
  • Coated versions of the Univex Hexar 35mm f/2.0, the 75mm f/3.5 Ilex Telecor, and 125mm f/4.5 Wollensak  telephoto lenses offered for the Mercury Model CC.  It has been rumored that some pre-war Hexars were coated in the Universal optical shop, but I’ve never seen one.  I have seen Mercury II’s with Hexars, but they are uncoated.

This ad for the Mercury II appeared in 1946

(Related note: Fred Spira was one of the greatest camera collectors and photohistory enthusiasts who ever lived – be sure to check out his book, titled The History of Photography as Seen through the Spira Collection.  It’s pretty pricey, so I borrowed it from the local library, and both the camera photos and the historical content are fantastic.  If you can afford it you should buy it, if only to encourage the continued publication of such high-quality material.)


Shooting with the Mercury II

I’ve owned a Mercury II for some time, as well as the aforementioned Mercury Model CC variants.   This past weekend, I decided to take the Mercury II out for a spin, and to try a couple of unusual things.   Sally and I headed over to Mentor Headlands State Park to take some pictures with my 63-year old classic camera.  The park is on the shores of Lake Erie, and constitutes the longest contiguous stretch of public access to the lake in Ohio.  The dunes along the lake are protected, but the area surrounding them presents opportunities for nature photographers. 

Vegetation with dunes in background

Shooting with the Mercury was an interesting challenge.  I used a hand-held meter for exposure settings, in this case an old Walz selenium meter that still works very accurately.  For focusing, I used a Kent clip-on rangefinder, transferring the distance reading to the Mercury’s focusing scale.  A Univex Exposure Meter served as a mounting platform to elevate the Kent rangefinder above the “hump” on the camera’s back.  (I couldn’t actually use the Univex extinction meter, because the translucent number slide inside is actually made of nitrocellulose-based film, and it has deteriorated severely.  Later cameras like the Meteor have extinction meters that apparently used modern film, as they seem to hold up better.)

Another issue with this camera is setting the shutter speed.  It’s very important to select the required shutter speed, then wind the film (which cocks the shutter).  If you cock the shutter first, then realize that you haven’t set the correct shutter speed, it’s too late to change it.  This resulted in a few lost frames as I struggled to remember NOT to wind the film until I was actually ready to set up for the next shot.   Fortunately, with a half-frame camera, you can waste a few frames if necessary – I got about 46 shots on a 24-exposure roll.   Having said all that, however, the rotary shutter still works beautifully.  In fact, standard Mercury cameras generally retain their accuracy right up until the spring craps out.  As focal plane cameras go, the Mercury exhibits less shake due to shutter motion than any camera I’ve used before.  The circular motion of the rotary shutter comes up to speed in less than a second, stopping without any perceptible “jerk.”  Most horizontal-travelling focal plane shutters seem to slam the camera to one side, resulting in potential movement on the part of the user.  The weight of the Mercury body, at over one pound, also helps dampen any motion.  


The results of shooting with the Mercury II were somewhat inconsistent at first, although the camera seemed to “warm up” and perform correctly by the second half of the roll.  It’s also true that I became more accustomed to working with the camera by that time, so maybe it was all my fault to begin with.  In any case, the lens seemed reasonably sharp for a triplet, and the coating was pretty effective at reducing lens flare.  The obvious exception was when shooting toward the sun, but that’s normal for any camera lens even today.  Note, however, the off-axis flare in the photo below.  That is not a common situation, and it could mean some separation of the cemented elements – I’ll try to address this in the future. 

Ultimate lens flare test shows some weird stuff happening

Trail to the dunes area

Shots around the beach area seem to be reasonably contrasty and the shutter speeds and apertures are obviously close to perfect, based on the negative density achieved.  Not bad at all for a camera that’s over 60 years old!  Shutter speeds right up to 1/1000 second were used, with no obvious over- or underexposure problems.  All in all, the Mercury II is a very capable 35mm camera, and even today performs well enough for amateur use.  Now all I need to do is try out the flash attachment – I have a few old Press 25B’s around here somewhere!

World’s Fastest – the Mercury CC-1500 Superspeed


The Mercury Model CC-1500 Superspeed

The Mercury Model CC-1500 Superspeed

Before I continue the Mercury saga, I’d like to give credit to the source of much of the factual information contained in the past few posts.  The UniveX Story, by Cynthia Repinski, is the absolute last word on the origins and history of the Universal Camera Company.  If you collect UniveX cameras, or if you’re simply interested in the history of amateur photography in the first half of the 20th century, you owe it to yourself to read this book.    Cynthia spent a great deal of time and effort interviewing some of the last surviving employees of the company in order to produce her book.  Having said that, in regard to this blog, when I refer to UniveX history, generally the facts are hers but the analysis is mine.  So don’t blame Cynthia for my opinions on the engineering or marketing decisions made by the company – she may not agree with me.   I have studied many of Universal’s patents and most of their literature in order to arrive at some very strong opinions about how the company managed to squander its intellectual property, turning a potentially world-class enterprise into a failure and a laughingstock.  In any case, let’s continue the story….


The Mercury Model CC (see previous post for history) boasted a shutter speed of 1/1000 second, and was recognized as the fastest candid camera in America.  But outside the U.S., there was a faster one – the Contax II, manufactured by Zeiss Ikon.  Galled by the fact that the German made camera boasted a shutter speed of 1/1250 second, Universal Camera Corporation management decided to up the ante.  They charged the engineering department to build a faster version of the Mercury’s rotary shutter, to outdo the Germans and thus produce the fastest camera in the world.

Model CC-1500 Closeup

Model CC-1500 control knobs. Note the 1/1500 maximum shutter speed.

There is no documentation of what George Kende and his compatriots thought about this contest of one-upmanship.  Considering the course of action they were forced to take, I suspect they protested loudly, because the method chosen to increase the Mercury’s shutter speed was not sound from an engineering standpoint.  To understand why this is true, you need to understand the workings of the shutter.  It’s simply a round circular blade with a pie-shaped opening that can be varied in width.  The blade turns at a constant speed, and the opening allows light to pass through as it passes in front of the film plane.  A wide opening produces a longer exposure, and a narrower one produces a shorter exposure.  The speed of the blade, however, is constant – only the width of the opening is variable. 

Mercury rotary shutter drawing

Logically, then, the way to obtain a faster shutter speed would be to employ a narrower opening.   In fact, one of the preliminary patent drawings created for the original rotary shutter design bears a handwritten note reading “1-1/2o = 1/2000 sec”.  So , the faster setting could have been acheived by modifying the design of the original shutter and adding a narrower setting to those already in use.  But the cost of doing so would have been significant.  Design and prototyping of the original Mercury had cost in excess of $100,000, and most of that cost related to the shutter design.   Making a new shutter would also have required time, and the Universal execs wanted a solution now.

So, a very simple solution was employed.  They simply increased the spring tension, which in turn, increased the blade speed.  This, of course, increased the shutter speed at all settings, not just the top one.  The new top speed of the shutter was 1/1500 second, the fastest in the world.  In addition to tinkering with the spring, of course, a new shutter speed knob had to be made and calibrated, and a new back plate for the “hump” carried the designation “Model CC-1500”.      The new “Superspeed” camera made a big splash upon its introduction in 1939.  The two 35mm Tricor normal lenses, f/3.5 and f/2.7, were available for the Superspeed, but the crowning achievement was a new Wollensak Hexar f/2.0 (mentioned in the previous post as a later option for all Mercuries) high speed lens to complement the world’s fastest shutter.  The Superspeed sold for $65.00 thus equipped – not so affordable compared to the original $25.00 Mercury Model CC.  Even so, about 3000 were sold in 1939. 

But the Superspeed was destined to be built for only one year; in fact, it appears that there may have been only one production run.  Why?  The reason is probably that, by taking the “cheap and dirty” approach to producing the high-speed shutter, Universal had dramatically impaired its reliability.  The springs fatigued very easily; some broke, some lost their temper and softened.  Today, a fully functioning Superspeed is pretty rare.  Lots of them have broken springs, and lots more have slow shutters because of the overtensioning to which they were subjected.  I had the good fortune to obtain a really clean, working copy of the Superspeed a number of years ago – the shutter still works, and seems to be up to snuff.  I am, however, afraid to put it to much use, for fear of breaking the spring.  A side-by-side comparison between Models CC and CC-1500 will clearly show the faster rotation rate of the shutter blades on the Superspeed.  

I could have titled this post “How Crappy Engineering Screwed Up the Most Innovative Camera Design of Its Day,” but I didn’t, because I don’t really blame the engineers for what happened to the Mercury Superspeed.  I believe that the decision to cut corners and rush the product to market as cheaply as possible typifies management decisions made throughout the unfortunate history of the Universal Camera Corporation.  

Note: Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that two of the photos in my previous post on the Model CC actually depict a Model CC-1500.  It’s otherwise identical to the Model CC, and it’s in better shape, so I used it as a generic example of the Mercury I.

“America’s Challenge to the World’s Finest Cameras” – the UniveX Mercury Model CC

Mercury I with Flash

Mercury Model CC with Flash Unit

In 1938, while the Universal Camera Corporation was introducing the Iris Series cameras described in the previous post, they dropped a real bombshell on the photographic world.  Unlike practically everything else they ever made, this product had real significance, and garnered respect from the rest of the industry.   The camera was called the UniveX Mercury Model CC, and it would go on to be the camera for which its maker is remembered.  

Need for an American-made Candid Camera

In 1937, when design work on the Mercury Model CC began, serious “candid camera” photographers, be they amateur or professional, didn’t have much to choose from in the area of American-made cameras.  The Iris Series was very low-end, although popular.  The Zenith, selling at $12-15, was a good value for the money, but it didn’t used 35mm film, so color prints and slides were out of the question.  Argus, in Chicago, had a compact Bakelite bodied candid camera that did use 35mm film, but its top shutter speed was 1/200 second.  Europe, on the other hand, had some truly well-engineered 35mm cameras, such as the Leica and the Contax.  These cameras had interchangeable lenses, focal plane shutters offering speeds to 1/1000 second and higher, and possessed build quality, fit, finish, and operational accuracy that nothing in the U.S. could touch.  They were also very expensive.  In 1939 (closest year I could get), the Leica cost $171, the Contax a whopping $285.   The average hourly worker in the United States in 1939 made 63 cents an hour and worked an average of 37.7 hours per week, for a total of $23.86.  Obviously, many people made more money than this, and quite a few made less.  But for marketing purposes, I would think that one wouldn’t want to price a luxury item like a camera at much higher than a week’s pay for a working man.  And in fact, Argus followed that very path in 1939, pricing their Argus C at $25.  So, there was the price target – Universal needed to design a serious camera to sell for $25.  And it needed features that would elevate its status to that of Leica and Contax, presenting the camera as a serious tool for serious photographers.  This was the task that Universal’s Chief Engineer, George Kende, faced when he began work on the Mercury.   

George Kende’s Mercury Design

Mercury I Design Drawings

Mercury I Design Drawings - 1937

Two years earlier, as his first assignment at Universal, George had designed and engineered a compact 8mm movie camera called the UniveX Cine 8.  He used his knowledge of shutters used in movie cameras to design a unique rotary shutter for still cameras that would be extremely accurate, and capable of very high speeds.  Most importantly, the simple design required a minimum number of parts, which could be assembled using unskilled labor.  He employed aluminum and zinc die-cast parts to reduce the amount of precision machining required.  He sourced out the interchangeable lenses to domestic manufacturers like Wollensak.  The camera used a scale-focusing lens mount, but an accessory rangefinder (outsourced) was available as an option.  Universal produced the clip-on extinction meter in-house.  The final detail was one that he’d been wrestling with for a while: the camera needed flash synchronization, and no one at Universal liked the idea of dangling wires connecting the camera’s shutter to the flashgun.  So, George designed a “hot shoe,” an accessory clip with an electrical contact in the center which would allow the camera’s shutter to trip the flash using the internal circuitry inside.   If you have a 35mm camera of any kind, you’ve probably seen a hot shoe – nearly every camera that accepts an electronic flash has one.  But the Mercury Model CC was the very first camera to employ one, and every other UniveX camera with flash synchronization used it, too.  That’s how the Iris and Zenith Cameras got their own Flash versions.

Mercury shutter patent drawing

Mercury shutter patent drawing - this patent also covered the "hot shoe"

Of course, the Mercury was tripping flashbulbs, not an electronic flash unit, so the synchronization had to allow for the time required for the bulb to ignite, so that the maximum brightness coincided with the time that the shutter opening passed in front of the film plane.  George used a near-circular cam mounted on the shutter shaft to trip the flash contacts at just the right time.  All these details were patented by Universal, and George Kende is the primary inventor.  Philip Brownscombe was the secondary inventor.

The Mercury Model CC is a Success

When the Mercury hit the market late in 1938, it was an immediate success.  No 35mm in the world could provide the features and performance of the Mercury at anywhere near its initial selling price of $25.  Universal’s net sales, having slumped in early 1938, showed a gain of over 25% in 1939, and the camera continued to sell in spite of all the company’s other difficulties, right up until 1941, when Universal became engaged in the business of making binoculars for the war effort.

Mercury I Closeup 2

Note the 1/1000 sec maximum shutter speed, biggest selling feature of the Mercury

The Camera

The Mercury in its finished form is strange-looking for a 35mm camera.  The rotary shutter took up a lot of space, requiring a “hump” along the back plane to accommodate the large circular blades.  The two knobs in front of the camera controlled the shutter speed setting and advanced the film.  The format is known as a “half frame”, providing a vertical 18 x 24 mm frame size, half the size of a conventional 35mm negative.   The camera is small and light compared to most of the cameras in its class that were available at the time, weighing about a pound and a half, and measuring 5-1/4” x 3-3/8” x 1-3/8”.  The rounded corners make it look and feel smaller. 

Mercury I Front

The Univex Mercury Model CC

Mercury I Back

The Mercury's exposure calculator is so complicated it takes 2-1/2 pages to explain it in the instruction manual

The specs are impressive:

Lens: 35mm F/3.5 Wollensak Tricor (std), 35mm f/2.7 Wollensak Tricor (opt) or 35mm f/2.0 Hexar (opt).  All provide continuous stops down to f/22.

Focusing: Scale focusing from 1-1/2 feet to infinity

Shutter: Rotary focal plane, speeds 1/20 to 1/1000 second plus B & T

Accessories: Clip-on rangefinder (uncoupled), Univex extinction meter, Mercury Photoflash Unit, Rapid Winder, 75mm Ilex Telecor lens, 125mm Wollensak telephoto lens, 35mm daylight film loader with Univex reloadable cartridges for Mercury and Corsair I cameras, Univex Micrographic Enlarger, Univex Copy Stand.

Micrographic Enlarger

A decrepit example of the Micrographic Enlarger

With a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 second, the Mercury was the fastest candid camera in the United States.  But the Contax shutter, at 1/1250 second, was still faster.  Universal would now challenge Contax in their quest to offer the best-performing candid camera at an affordable price.  Next up:  The Mercury CC-1500 Superspeed.

Strange footnotes:  Scrounging around the flea markets can be tedious, and there’s no substitute for the excitement of recognizing a rare item marked with a low price.  A while back, I was browsing the aisles when I spotted a Univex Hexar f/2.0 box marked $1.00.  When I picked up the box, I could tell by the weight that there was a lens inside. I threw the money at the seller, all the while trying to remain nonchalant.  I took the box without examining its contents – I couldn’t bring myself to look inside.  Of course, when I did venture to look inside the blue plush-lined box, I found, not the Hexar (value: about a hundred bucks), but the entry-level f/3.5 Tricor (value: maybe ten bucks).  The instruction sheet was for an f/2.7 Tricor, another normal lens that was available for the Mercury.  Even so, any pristine UniveX product is a bargain at a dollar!


Lens Box

This f/2 Hexar box turned out to be a fake-out


How Hitler Increased the Value of My Camera Collection

Iris Series

Here's the whole Iris line - note the massive flashbulb on the Zenith!

In 1938, a lot of things were happening at the Universal Camera Corporation.  The company had entered the “Vest Pocket Camera” market just about the time that the craze for small folding cameras was coming to an end.  Sales were falling off for both the UniveX Model A and the Model AF Folding Cameras, because many buyers of those cameras were progressing to more feature-laden designs with lens opening and shutter speed adjustments – features not available in the current UniveX product line.  As the simple cameras fell into disuse, sales of “00” film were also dropping, and the need for a new product to reinvigorate film sales was apparent.

Kodak Bantam

The competition: the Kodak Bantam, though a folder, was an early candid camera with full focusing and exposure controls

Therefore, the next step in their product development plan involved a rigid-bodied camera with a collapsible lens, with both f-stop and shutter speed adjustments.  Cameras of this type were then generally known as candid cameras.  Cameras of this type available at the time included Kodak’s Bantam and Kodak 35, the German Leica and Contax (for those with lots of bucks), and Argus’ Models A, AF, and B.    From a price standpoint, the Argus cameras were the real competition.  They offered a simple fixed focus model with adjustable lens openings and shutter speeds, a scale-focusing model with the aforementioned features, and one with all of the above plus a built-in extinction meter.  

Universal’s plan was to cut costs and create a low-priced candid camera product line that ran the gamut from simple to sophisticated.  They created a zinc die-cast body as a base for all the models, then designed a progrssively more full-featured line of products based on the original platform. 

Iris Standard Candid Camera

Iris Candid Camera

The Iris Standard Candid Camera (non-flash sync model)

The base model was christened the Iris Standard Candid Camera, and had a fixed-focus collapsible lens, f-stops from f/7.7 to f/22, and a simple T,B, & I shutter.  The zinc body had a black crinkled enamel finish, chrome lens barrel, and a satin-chrome front panel around the lens mount.  An optical viewfinder sat atop the body.

Iris Deluxe Candid Camera

Iris Deluxe

The Iris Deluxe Candid Camera (non-flash sync model)

The Iris Deluxe Candid Camera was more ornate, sporting a satin chrome finished body, and a black leatherette covering with the Iris logo stamped in white.  Initially, both cameras had identical features, then after about two months of production, the Deluxe model was fitted with a scale-focusing lens.  All Iris Deluxe models thereafter had a focusing lens, so fixed-focus Deluxes are uncommon.    

Zenith Candid Camera

Zenith Flash Camera

The Zenith Flash Candid Camera (with flash synchronizer)

The top-of-the-line UniveX candid camera was called the Zenith.  Aimed at serious amateur photographers, the Zenith had a die-cast aluminum alloy body, micrometer-focusing (non-collapsing) 50mm f/4.5 anastigmatic lens with 5 f-stop settings, shutter speeds of 1/25-1/200 second plus T & B, and optional flash synchronization.  Flash synchronization was offered on all lesser Iris models at around the same time.   The Zenith had a black leatherette covering, silver-stamped Zenith logo on the front of the camera body, satin chrome finish on all metal parts, and an optional eveready case. 

Hitler screws up a great marketing plan

These cameras all used Universal’s “00” rollfilm, and were very successfully launched throughout 1938 (Iris Standard & Deluxe) and 1939(Zenith), restoring sales of UniveX “00” rollfilm and dramatically improving the company’s bottom line.   The Zenith was the last model to be introduced, during the last few months of 1939, just in time for Christmas.  Sales were substantial, and life was good.  Then Hitler invaded Poland, and that was only the beginning.  As the German Army rolled through the German-speaking countries of Europe, Gevaert Company, the sole supplier of film to Universal, became unable to ship film from their own plants in Belgium late in 1939, and by spring of 1940, Belgium was occupied by the German Army.  Universal frantically tried to find another source of film, with no success.  It wasn’t until mid-1940 that Gevaert succeeded in building and starting up a film plant in the U. S., and for months afterward, UniveX film was scarce, even unavailable in most of the country.

As a result of this situation, people who received new UniveX Zenith Candid Cameras for Christmas were greeted with the news that film was not to be found.  Many, if not most, of these cameras were tossed in the trash as worthless.  As the most advanced camera designed to use the “00” rollfilm, the Zenith had been built in reduced numbers compared to the Irises to begin with.  The fact that the Zenith production run ended during the crisis resulted in a real scarcity of Zeniths to the camera collecting population.  It is regarded as the rarest of all UniveX camera models.  So I have Hitler to thank for the rarity and consequent value of my Zenith Flash Candid Camera.  

Strange footnote: when I started to prepare the photos of my Iris Series cameras for this post, I dragged everything out of storage, including an old decrepit camera that I bought as part of a box lot ages ago.  I had cataloged it as an Iris Deluxe model, but the leatherette was missing from most of the body, and it was really in rough shape.  As I went over the cameras I needed to photograph, I realized that the “Iris Deluxe” was actually another Zenith.  This may not amaze you, but I looked for nearly five years with great diligence to find my first Zenith (bought it on ebay, of course), and I’d be ashamed to tell you what I paid for it.  In the eight years since then, I’ve never seen another specimen anywhere, in any condition.  And I just found one in my own collection….

Rough Zenith Flash

It's ugly, but it's a Zenith! I'll be polishing, restoring and re-covering this baby in the near future.

The UniveX AF Series – A Vest Pocket Camera that Really Fits in a Vest Pocket!

All AF Folders

The UniveX Model AF Series

In 1935, the Universal Camera Corporation was flying high.  They had a small Bakelite camera selling for 39 cents that had taken the country by storm.  After selling 2.6 million units in 1934, they needed a follow-up product.  They also wanted to lock up the market for 8-to-16 year-olds while expanding their grip on American amateur photographers.  A competitor, the Vest Pocket Kodak, had been introduced in 1912, and had been very well received, various versions being produced through 1935.  Both Boy Scout and Girl Scout versions were produced in 1929 through around 1933.  Kodak also produced Boy Scout and Girl Scout versions of the Brownie Box Camera, providing a lower cost option. 


Vest Pocket Kodak, Model B

Vest pocket Kodaks used No. 127 rollfilm, producing a negative 1-5/8” square.  UniveX No. “00” rollfilm made for a slightly smaller negative, 1-1/8” x 1-1/2”.   Universal decided to produce a folding “vest pocket” camera using their proprietary “00” rollfilm, marketing it to children and adults as a lower priced alternative to the Vest Pocket Kodak.

The UniveX Model AF was much smaller than the VPK, measuring 2-1/8” x 4” x 7/8” when closed.  The shutter had only two settings, I and T (instant and time).  The lens had but a single stop, and was clearly designed for outdoor use.  However, for Universal’s target demographic, this was no problem.  Amateur photography in those days precluded the use of flash, and the UniveX AF was a viable competitor to Kodak’s offerings at a lower price.  The camera was offered in four colors – black, brown, green, and blue.

Univex AF

UniveX Model AF in black

In 1936, Universal produced a Girl Scout version of the camera, which was listed in the Official Girl Scout Catalog for the price of $1.00.  Kodak’s Girl Scout Kodak was also listed, at a price of $6.00.  Bearing in mind that the Depression was still in full swing in 1936, one can only imagine that the UniveX Girl Scout Camera attracted a significant following.  In 1938, an improved version was introduced, bearing a single button bellows release and a new color scheme (black and green vs. the former all-green model).  The little UniveX Model A was also listed in the Official Girl Scout Catalog from 1933 on, at a price of 35 cents. 

Other special versions of the Model AF were produced as premiums and corporate giveaways.  “The Hollywood Camera” was a special version about which little is known – it carried no UniveX markings at all, and no documentation of its production is extant.

The UniveX Model AF-2 was released in 1936, bearing a black, red and chrome art deco style faceplate, the quick-release bellows button, and a hinged back.  Price was $1.50.

Univex AF-2

The UniveX Model AF-2

 The AF-3 also came out in 1936, featuring an achromatic doublet lens to replace the singlet meniscus lens on all previous models.  The AF-3 featured an oxidized silver front plate.  The AF-3 sold for $2.50.

 The UniveX Model AF-4 came out in 1938.  It was essentially the same as the AF-3, only not featuring the “Duo Achromatic Lens” marking on the front plate.  It sold for $1.95.

Univex AF-4

This nice specimen of the UniveX AF-4 closely resembles the AF-3

The final model of the UniveX AF Series was the Minicam Model AF-5, also introduced in 1938, featured a 60mm Ilex Achromar lens, and was designed for either vertical or horizontal format pictures using either the vertical wire frame finder or the horizontal optical viewfinder.

Univex AF-5

The UniveX Minicam Model AF-5

These cameras had a significant impact on amateur photography.  By 1937, over a million Model AF folders had been sold.  At this point in time, Universal was a real threat to Kodak, and they had even higher aspirations for the future.

More to come……

A Jewel of a Camera: the Shady Origins of UniveX


Sunburst 2, Geometric, Norton

The first molded plastic cameras came out in 1933-34


Early History of the Universal Camera Company (UniveX)

 In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, two men in the taxicab business decided to start a camera company.  Otto Githens was an executive for a loan company that specialized in financing taxicab operations.  His new partner, Jacob Shapiro, was an agent for a taxicab insurance underwriter.  Between the two of them, they had a total of zero years of experience in the camera business, yet they were enthusiastic about their ability to take on Eastman Kodak in the amateur photography market.  They had ideas about how to achieve their goal, and some of these ideas were scoffed at by Kodak and Ansco, the two American companies who currently controlled the market.  First off, they planned to produce and sell a camera for the paltry sum of 39 cents.  At this rate, anyone who really wanted a camera could afford to buy one.  The second step of their plan involved the film for the camera.  They contracted Gevaert of Belgium to produce a proprietary rollfilm which would sell for 10 cents.  Each roll would provide six exposures, and their camera would only accept this film.  These non-standard film formats were essential to their business plan, since they could give cameras away if necessary, and still make money on the film.  The final step in their plan followed directly from step 2: they would set up processing labs across the country to develop the non-standard film, thus insuring control of the entire supply chain.

 They did in fact put their plan into action, and in 1934, they sold 2.6 million of their little molded Bakelite cameras.  Needless to say, they also sold millions of rolls of film, and they also processed that film.  In a few years they would be able to boast that they sold more cameras per year than any company in the world.

 If the years 1933 and 1934 heralded the start of the Universal Camera Company, they also heralded the beginning of a reputation that would follow the company throughout its history.  It seems that, while investigating how to produce their popular little camera, they spoke extensively to Norton Labs in New York about designing and producing their camera for them.  There seems to be some doubt about what was said and agreed upon, but what is known is that when the UniveX Model A hit the market, the boys at Norton Labs were dismayed.  They had gone ahead with the camera design and even made molding dies, believing that they had a production contract with Universal

.  The camera looked amazingly like the UniveX Model A.  Patents were applied for by both companies.  An “interference” was adjudged, and a hearing was held.  The courts eventually found in favor of Universal, and the UniveX camera remained on the market.  In fact, Universal eventually bought Norton Labs out, rebadging the Norton Camera as the “Norton-UniveX.”  Many critics of the Universal Camera Company believed that they had simply stolen Norton’s design, beaten them to market, and bullied their way through the courts on the strength of their position in the marketplace.  True or not, they did accomplish one thing that proved to be good for the photographic industry:  they made the camera affordable.  Within a few years, Kodak, Ansco, Argus, and many others were selling molded plastic cameras in order to compete in the amateur photography market.  Universal was the reason for all of it.

Facts for the Collector

The Univex Model A began as an all-plastic camera with an imported glass meniscus lens and a single speed metal shutter.  The front of the camera bore a sunburst design, the lens opening was plain and unadorned, and the wind knob was plastic.  This version was made only in 1933, and is very rare.  I don’t own one, and I’ve only seen them in pictures. 

The second 1933 model also bore the sunburst design, but the following design changes are evident: first, the lens opening is stepped, to reduce stray light reflections; second, the wind knob is made of die-cast zinc rather than plastic. 

In the spring of 1934, the “geometric” design, bearing stripes along the axis of the lens barrel, appeared, displacing the sunburst designs.  This is the most common camera design, and included a newly designed box as well. 

Photos below depict the second 1933 sunburst model, the 1934 geometric design, and the original Norton Camera design that was the center of so much litigation.  These little cameras still show up in flea markets, yard sales, and antique shops from time to time.  They are omnipresent on Ebay, although they are often misrepresented as “rare.”  Considering that about 3 million were made by the end of 1934, it’s not surprising that they’re still out there.

Art Deco Wars: Spartus, Falcon, and Kodak

Falcon Press Flash, the first camera in my collection, acquired nearly fifty years ago

Falcon Press Flash, the first camera in my collection, acquired nearly fifty years ago

I have a soft spot in my heart for Falcon cameras, because, when I was about five years old, one of my mother’s coworkers gave me an old Falcon Press camera to play with.  It was completely functional except for the flash, which didn’t work.  I kept the camera, even after my parents gave me a fully working 620 rollfilm camera, which I used regularly throughout my childhood.  In fact, the old Falcon is still in my collection, and certainly will be for as long as I am on this earth.  After that, Sally can put it up on Ebay with all the rest of my junk!

My old Falcon with a near-identical Spartus Press Flash.  Both were made c. 1939-50.

My old Falcon with a near-identical Spartus Press Flash. Both were made c. 1939-50.

As mentioned in the previous post, Falcon was acquired by the company that made Spartus cameras, but the chronology is not clear to anyone, as far as I can tell.  Utility Mfg. was the parent company responsible for all Falcons labeled as made in New York.  Falcon Camera Company, apparently owned by Herold Products, was always shown as being in Chicago.  Eventually, virtually identical Spartus and Falcon branded cameras were marketed to the same demographic.   To make things more complicated, there were several other companies in Chicago and New York, who produced a number of surprisingly similar cameras under various labels.  The 127 rollfilm cameras known as “minicams” were nearly identical in design, and several differ only in the name on the metal faceplate, yet they are labeled as having been manufactured by different companies.   What they all have in common is a black or brown body made of cast plastic, usually bakelite or a similar material.

Minicams: Bullet, Photo Master, Beauta, Falcon Minicam, Photo Craft, and Falcon Miniature.  The Art Deco Kodak Bullet is far and away the most elegant, and probably doesn't even belong in this group shot.

Minicams: Bullet, Photo Master, Beauta, Falcon Minicam, Photo Craft, and Falcon Miniature. The Art Deco Kodak Bullet is far and away the most elegant, and probably doesn't even belong in this group shot.

Minicams were really popular: they were small and pocketable, easy to operate, and they created either 12 or 16 exposures on a roll of #127 film.  They were even more popular when 127 slide film came around, allowing them to produce “superslides” as large as 1-5/8″ x 2-1/2″.   They have become a popular collectible because of the plethora of models available, and peripherally because most of them are made of bakelite.  And one of the first and most popular of the minicams was the Kodak Bullet, an Art Deco torpedo with a spiral-threaded telescoping lens barrel.  Designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, still the most famous industrial designer ever associated with cameras, the bakelite beauty was produced from 1936 through 1942.  The plainer features reflected in the cameras shown above came in the post-war years, as Art Deco faded away and simple designs proliferated. 

These Falcons were made c. 1947-50

These Falcons were made c. 1947-50.

Twin red windows and internal masks facilitated 12 or 16 exposure formats

Twin red windows and internal masks facilitated 12 or 16 exposure formats

But Kodak’s competitors weren’t completely lacking in artistry.  The cute little Spartus Folding Camera, circa 1940-50, is all bakelite with chrome detailing and an Art Deco look similar to that sported by many Kodak products.  It would have competed with the Vest Pocket Kodaks as well as the minicams, although the VP’s were considerably smaller. 

Spartus Folding Camera.  This specimen is in mint condition with the original box.

Spartus Folding Camera. This specimen is in mint condition with the original box.

My Camera Collection

The Spartus Co\Flash used 127 rollfilm

The Spartus Co\Flash

Since film cameras are becoming increasingly rare these days, I thought it might be interesting to start a blog about the cameras in my collection. I’ve been collecting old cameras since I was about 12 years old, so the collection is pretty sizable. It isn’t, however, very valuable, since most of my collection consists of American made cameras. I’m particularly fond of folding cameras and non-folders made of bakelite. Some of these have Art Deco designs that are particularly nice.

Starting today, I’ll be working my way through the collection, photographing and writing about them, either individually or in groups. I’ll also be adding a brief bit of history on some of them, since the story of camera manufacturing in this country is both fascinating and unsung. Please check out the page as I construct it, and PLEASE ADD YOUR COMMENTS. I’d really like to hear from you, even if it’s only to tell me to shut up!

    Chicago and New York Camera Companies: Spartus, Utility, Herold
The Spartus Co\Flash packaging was a ringer for Kodak's!

The Spartus Co\Flash packaging was a ringer for Kodak's!

The Spartus, like all 127 rollfilm cameras, used a red window to advance the film to the next frame number

The Spartus, like all 127 rollfilm cameras, used a red window to advance the film to the next frame number

I’m starting with a few of my most recent acquisitions, since they’re close at hand. The first is a simple, Chicago made bakelite box camera called the Spartus CO/Flash Camera. It was sold around 1958-60, in a complete outfit containing camera, flashbulbs, batteries and film. The box points out that the camera “takes all 3” – black & white prints, color snapshots, and color slides. I like it when I can get a clean example of a camera in the original box, with instructions and other ephemera.

The Herold Products Company was owned by Harold Rubin, a former sales manager for Spartus Camera who purchased that company in 1956. Herold Products was in a death struggle with Eastman Kodak, who completely dominated the consumer photography market. They employed several interesting marketing techniques to try to steal market share from Kodak: 1) they sold a complete outfit – Kodak often sold camera, film, flash attachment, bulbs, etc., as separate items; 2) they very effectively imitated Kodak’s packaging – as you can see from the yellow, black and red colors and even similar fonts to those used by their competitors; 3) they offered free film for one year after purchase, provided the owner used their development service, at a cost of $1.00 for “jumbo sized prints.” I find the history of this competition fascinating, particularly in the days before the entry of Japanese and German makers into the fray. There were many other small companies in the camera business from around 1915 through the 1960’s. After that, even Kodak ceased to be a force among serious photographers, except in the photo paper and film business, which they dominated until the bitter end.

Herold Products eventually changed the name of the company back to Spartus, acknowledging the greater marketing power of the Spartus brand name. Spartus apparently acquired the Falcon Camera line at some point. Early Falcons are marked “Utility Mfg, New York”, whereas later ones display the name “Falcon Camera Company, Chicago, Ill.” I have quite a few Spartus, Falcon, and Utility cameras in my collection. Here are a few of them: 

Some of the cameras made by Spartus, Utility, and Herold Products

Some of the cameras made by Spartus, Utility, and Herold Products