Tag Archives: Art Deco

“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.