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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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……