Antique Kodak Baby Brownie Special toy camera

This week’s camera from my collection is the Kodak Baby Brownie Special, another of my Bakelite Beauties.

Kodak started making the Brownie line of cameras with the original Brownie box camera in 1900. Over the years the Brownie line evolved through many versions and led to futuristic designs in the early 1960s like this Brownie Vecta from 1963.

Kodak Baby Brownie Special opened up
Here you can see the Baby Brownie Special opened up, showing the loading mechanisms and the molded bakelite film path. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Kodak offered the Baby Brownie, a small bakelite snapshot camera with folding frame viewfinder and a center-front mounted, lever-style shutter release, beginning in 1934.

In 1938, the Baby Brownie Special was introduced as an upgrade to the original Baby Brownie. Improvements included a side-mounted (more accessible) bakelite button shutter release, and a top-mounted telescopic optical viewfinder. This little guy was in production until 1954, and given its quality in comparison to other toy cameras I’ve tested, it’s no surprise.

About the Baby Brownie Special

The Baby Brownie Special produces 4×6.5cm negatives (8 to a roll of 127 film), with relatively sharp edges and low distortion. According to Camerapedia, it has a meniscus lens at approximately f/11 and a rotary-type shutter, focuses from about 5 feet to infinity, and the shutter operates at around 1/40 sec. It takes pretty nice pictures for such an inexpensive camera.

The camera comes apart in two halves, like most box-style cameras. The two halves are held together by latches on both sides which slide up to lock the halves together. The tops of the slides are where the ends of the braided leather handle are attached.

Kodak Baby Brownie Special with box
The Kodak Baby Brownie Special and its box, front view. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Loading film is basically the same as any box camera. The red window is well-aligned and makes very neatly-spaced negatives. The film advance knob is a touch on the short side, making it difficult for my large fingers to wind the film. It turns smoothly, however, and wouldn’t likely pose the same difficulties for most fingers.

The telescopic viewfinder seems to match about the center 70% of the final frames — meaning you’ll have plenty of room around your subject in the finished product, so get in there.

According to this page from the 1949 Montgomery Ward catalog, at that time the Baby Brownie Special retailed for $3.14, though it is reported to be a mere $1.25 ten years earlier.

About my example

I found my Baby Brownie Special at an antique shop in Salida, Colorado. The box was included, and is not too badly worn. The manual is missing, though. I believe I paid $20, which is in line with or a little cheaper than going eBay.com prices.

I don’t mind paying market price, despite my addiction to thrift stores, for a camera this clean. It looks nearly new, and didn’t even need to be dusted before I put a roll of film through it.

Roll of Efke R100 127 film
Because I could, a roll of Efke R100 black and white 127 film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Early in my collecting days, I sort of shunned Kodak cameras because so many of them seemed to be virtually everywhere — a dime a dozen, so to speak. But the more experience I gain with cameras from the 1930s-1960s, the more I realize why Kodak was one of the few names to survive so long (forgetting their current troubles).

The thing about the Baby Brownie Special, while it isn’t any bigger, heavier, or more well-appointed than many of my other simple box cameras, is that everything operates smoothly and accurately. In fact, today I put a roll of film through another vintage Kodak camera and I am more and more convinced that their ubiquity was well-deserved for many years.

The shutter sounds like it probably fits the 1/40-sec. estimate; the overexposed negatives suggest that’s accurate as well. The lens is much sharper than the Mar-Crest and Imperial Herco cameras, though it’s still blurred and slightly distorted toward the edges. Vignetting isn’t too bad at all.

The film path is quite smooth and the negatives show almost no damage from dragging over the bakelite save for a few ragged spots along the lower edge, which I can find no imperfections to explain. I found no conclusive evidence of light leaks.

Overall, the Baby Brownie Special is deserving of a 4-star rating — it does precisely what it was designed to do, and within the confines of intentional simplicity it excels at what it was designed to do.

Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Kodak Baby Brownie Special box camera
Author Rating
31star1star1stargraygray
  • bayleaf-123

    I have one of these cameras, in fact I think I have all of them ! All purchased from what you call “thrift shops”, here in England called ‘charity shops’. Recovering from a minor stroke, today I went to my local engineering club for the first time in many weeks. On the way is a ‘hospice shop; Just another ‘charity; shop but dedicated to persons sadly on their way to another place. Well, you know how it is, decidedly churlish to pass on without looking. I found several cameras there, the Kodak ‘Colorsnap’, I purchased for a friend, but will keep until I have exposed the new film inside. The ‘Kodak’ baby brownie, although I have two excellent examples, I also purchased because It makes my pristine examples look dowdy. It is totally perfect, not a blemish, crystal clear lens, and it is in a totally decrepid seemingly soft case. The case looks like a brown ‘leatherette’ with an unbroken adjustable strap. It has fold over top flaps, left and right, square section with pointed ends, and a longer top flap, pointed with a’ pop’ stud fastening that secures at the front.  The covering of this case has deteriorated to a hard ‘goo’ that has long since broken up, and in places has fallen off. The really good part is that there is a film intact, which I gently wound on until the double No. 4 appeared in the rear window.  From the condition of the case, I would think that the age is possiblyearly or pre 50s. Until I have exposed the rest of the film, I cannot inspect it as it is unrecognisable through the rear red window.I know in in some old cameras, the window was a portent of the arrival of colour film, being tinted for the defusion of excess light. I cannot wait to go on holiday in my 1948 WESSEX ‘foldavan’ to use this contemporary camera. My only complaint is having to make my own 127 film in a dark bag !

    • In the U.S., at least, ‘thrift’ has come to mean any shop that sells inexpensive, unfocused, donated goods. Some are for-profit and some do support charities. I frequent them all (cheap cameras are good no matter where you find them, right?). They’re all popular as a place to unload the un-sold remains of a relative’s estate, so currently it’s easy to find a lot of relatively-good condition things from the 1940s-1960s. When I was much younger I remember seeing a lot more things from the 20s-40s.

      I know the regular Baby Brownie pre-dates the Special by about 5 years, so it would likely have been made somewhere between about 1935 and 1955. I’ve never seen one with a case, but even real leather cases that age rarely survive in serviceable shape this long. I suspect a Naugahyde or vinyl case of that age would have deteriorated pretty badly.

      I would be waiting for just the right time to try exposing any unused film in a camera that old, too. I have a roll of pre-war Agfapan 120 film I’m waiting for just the right subject for. I hope you’ll drop back in and post a link if you get any pictures from the roll of film in the camera — I’d love to see them!