Category Archives: Photography

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 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