Tag Archives: Bakelite

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!

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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