Tag Archives: minicams

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.