The idea of a compact camera, small enough to slip conveniently into your pocket, may seem like a fairly recent innovation. However, like most things in photography, the idea has been around for a lot longer than you might think.
One of the first and most successful ‘compact’ cameras appeared 100 years ago, in April 1912.
The Vest Pocket Kodak camera, or ‘VPK’ as it was usually known, was one of the most popular and successful cameras of its day. Over 2 million were sold before the model was discontinued in 1926.
During the first decade of the 20th century there was a growing trend toward pocket-sized cameras. In January 1912, The Amateur Photographer magazine commented:
It is a matter for conjecture in what direction the desire for diminutive cameras (so readily met by photographic manufacturers) is leading the amateur. The limit must be surely reached soon or… no doubt highly effective cameras for plates the size of postage stamps (or smaller) will eventuate.
The Vest Pocket Kodak took film negatives slightly larger than a postage stamp—just 1⅝ by 2½ inches. This format was the same as the No 0 Folding Pocket Kodak which had been introduced 10 years earlier. However, improved design and manufacturing the camera body in metal instead of wood meant that the VPK could be made much smaller. When closed, the VPK measures just 1 by 2½ by 4¾ inches.
‘Vest’ is the American term for a waistcoat, and the camera lives up to its name. As The Amateur Photographer noted in its review:
The Vest Pocket Kodak does not belie its name, and is small enough to be carried in a waistcoat pocket without inconvenience.
In use, the lens panel pulls out on a pair of lazy-tongs struts. The basic VPK was fitted with a two-speed ball bearing shutter—1/25 and 1/50 sec—and a fixed-focus meniscus lens. Many variants with different lens and shutter combinations were also produced.
The VPK was favourably reviewed by the photographic press. The British Journal Photographic Almanac, for example, thought that:
In the very excellent design and finish of the apparatus we see the familiar determination of the Kodak makers to produce always the best type of a given article. The Vest Pocket Kodak, though taking a very small picture, is nevertheless a thoroughly reliable instrument, and not at all dear at its price of £1 10s (£1.50).
In 1913, Kodak decided to change the way the many different roll-film sizes it produced were identified.
Up to this time, films had been identified by the type of camera they fitted. To simplify things, a consecutive numbering system, starting from 101, was adopted, with numbers allocated in the order in which the various film sizes first appeared. Film for the VPK was the 27th roll film format to be produced and became 127 film. It was a very popular film format for many years; Kodak only stopped producing 127 film in 1995.
In 1915, the ‘Autographic’ Vest Pocket Kodak was introduced.
In 1913 an American inventor, Henry Gaisman, had taken out a series of patents for a roll film with a thin carbon-paper-like tissue between the film and the backing paper. A small flap in the camera back could be opened to uncover the backing paper. Pressure from a metal stylus caused the backing paper to become transparent, exposing the film. With autographic film, photographers could ‘write’ information on their negatives that would then appear on their finished prints.
Kodak bought Gaisman’s patent rights for the then-enormous sum of $300,000 and the entire range of folding Kodak cameras, including the Vest Pocket Kodak, were subsequently redesigned to use autographic film.
The introduction of the Autographic VPK coincided with a boom in camera sales linked with the outbreak of the First World War.
Many soldiers bought cameras to record their travels and experiences. The Vest Pocket Kodak was by far the most popular choice, particularly with American ‘doughboys’. It was widely advertised as ‘The Soldier’s Kodak’ and owners were encouraged to ‘Make your own picture record of the War’.
Sales figures rocketed. In 1914 about 5,500 VPKs were sold in Britain. The following year, this increased to over 28,000.
Colin Harding was filmed in our archives demonstrating the Vest Pocket Kodak for the BBC Four documentary Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs.