Box cameras are a class of mainly 19th century camera types, except the rollfilm variants which remained popular as cameras for beginners until the mid-1950s.


The box cameras are the oldest class of photographic cameras. The first camera ever used for making persistent photographic images was the big wooden box camera that Nicéphore Niépce used for experimental photography in the mid-1820s. Pen Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerrejoined his developments of new photographic processes they already used box cameras with iris diaphragm. Daguerre gave Niépce such a camera. Concerning lenses they had different preferences, Daguerre liked the color corrected (achromatic) version of the periscopic lens of optician-engineer Dr. Wollaston, Niépce sought the help of the opticians Vincent and Charles Chevalier. Some years later William Henry Fox Talbot made his photographic experiments. He had a whole series of little box cameras ("mousetraps") to be able to make several exposures on one sunny day - exposure times were very long in those pioneering days. The box design of all these pioneer cameras was derived from a certain variant of the camera

for a very heavy wooden box camera that became the model for many early photographic cameras: A box with an open back, and a hole in the middle of the front to mount a lens or a diaphragm and a lens. Shutters were not needed, the lens cap was sufficient. A second box, one with open front side, held in its back the light sensitive plate in its holder, or the focusing ground glass instead. The second box had to be pushed like a drawer into the outer box. Focusing was made with open lens, wide aperture and ground glass in the back by shifting the inner box for- or backward until the image subject appeared sharply on the screen. Since the sliding drawer should not hang in its position the bottom plate of the outer box was of double length so that the inner box was always moved on this plane. Alphonse Giroux was the maker of the biggest series of Daguerre's original camera "Le Daguerreotype", some made of fine walnut wood. He used achromatic lenses of the opticianCharles Chevalier. Optician Bianchi produced a similar camera, probably with own lenses but the woodwork done by the same craftsmen that made Giroux's cameras. It's supposed that the Susse brothers made a small series of "Le Daguerreotype" too. In 2007 such a camera appeared for the first time in a photographica auction. 168 years after the production of the original camera the successful bidder must have a strong belief in its authenticity. Other early makers of sliding box cameras for the daguerreotype or the talbotype process were Gaudin & Lerebours (F), James Ottevill (GB) and John Roberts (USA) as well as many unknown craftsmen of the 1840s.

Boxes as a Means to Popularize Photography[]

From the beginning amateurs were participating in the photography business, at least as customers for photographic material. But traveling was expensive, and camera equipment was heavy, so that a camera was even not in the luggage of many rich travelers. Circumstances had changed at the end of the 19th century. Dry plates, roll film, drugstores with darkrooms to rent, material and infrastructure were given to support a wider spreading of amateur photography. And traveling was easy and affordable since the railway networks reached a high density and trains were much faster.

The industry had to offer easy-to-use cameras to all the camera newbies. Box cameras were one key product in that market. They contained a simple camera technology, the best for mass production. And they offered the convenience of making a whole series of photos without reloading. The Kodak No. 1 with built-in 100-exposure paper film roll was only one of many rollfilm box cameras that appeared on the market. With clever marketing and advertising the cameras found more and more customers. But the film plates and sheet film got a chance on that market through.

Boxes for Beginners[]

In 1896 Zar made the first very cheap entry level box camera. In 1900, when a Yale plate box camera cost just $2.00, including complete developing/printing/toning kit, and a Kodak rollfilm box (The Brownie) cost only $1.00, the industry sought new customers for its huge production of these simpler cameras. The first new idea came when the international boy scout movement was launched. Following this, many Camera makers offered "Scout" models: Seneca, Pho-Tak, Kodak, Lumière, Imperial. When Eastman Kodak celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1930, it even gave away box cameras as a gift to 550,000 American pupils who would have their 12th birthday that year. Kodak assumed, correctly, that by doing this, they'd be buying the loyalty of half-a-million continuing film customers. In Germany in the 1930s, Agfa launched a campaign: People could buy an Agfa Box 44 camera for 4 Marks, below the production price. Agfa regained the lost money by film sales. The Ensign Ful-Vue was a new approach to box camera design, handsome and with a very big viewfinder. With some exceptions all the 20th century box cameras were easy-to-load conceptions with just a few very simple controls.

Boxes could be made of wood, cardboard or metal; and when Bakelite was developed commercially in the 1930s, camera manufacturers jumped on the Bakelite bandwagon. True Art-Deco masterpieces were created in the box camera market: the Baby Brownie and the Agfa Trolix, just to name two.

Boxes for Pretenders[]

A special category among the box cameras are the pseudo TLRs. These were made for people who feared to be seen as poor if they didn't run around with a two-eyed camera. The difference to the real twin lens reflexcameras is that the big lens for the reflex finder is cheap optics and far from being a twin of the camera lens.

Boxes' lasting success[]

The box cameras for single film plates vanished soon after Kodak's introduction of 1-Dollar rollfilm box cameras in 1900. The magazine box cameras vanished in the 1920s. The rollfilm boxes stayed popular as beginners' cameras until the 1950s, some plastic models even until the 1960s. Only the wooden pinhole box cameras forsheet film are still popular today. The lasting success of the cheap plate and rollfilm box cameras is that they helped to make photography an easily affordable leisure joy for everybody. Some of the late bakelite and plastic models had a built-in flash for big flashbulbs, thus being a kind of early predecessor of modern compact cameras. Despite of Pseudo TLRs' often poor image quality they were the industry's first step to lead lots of consumers towards their choice of more representative cameras for their advanced steps in photography. Today such consumers wouldn't choose such a plastic monster no more, but maybe they would choose the cheapest DSLR which delivers a nicer photo quality but certainly can't be a sophisticated metal-bodied camera.

Last not least the lasting success of the boxes is also represented by many many photos of the times from 1896 (first very cheap box camera) to 1963 (Instamatics succeed the boxes as entry level cameras) which fill old family albums.

Box Camera Types[]

Box shaped cameras with more sophisticated camera technology contents like the early instant camera Appareil Dubroni No 1 or old semi folding SLR cameras or real TLR cameras are not classified as box cameras. So the class of the box cameras is one of simpler camera construction.

One remarkable maker must be mentioned here: Charles Louis Chevalier who was the first successful maker of collapsible box cameras, a camera type between box and folder, later improved by other makers.