Imperial Debonair bakelite toy camera review

Imperial Debonair front view
A front view of the brown bakelite Imperial Debonair, a stunning example of Streamline Moderne industrial design. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Imperial Debonair, another bakelite box camera made by Chicago’s Herbert George Co., is stunningly designed. Reminiscent of the Imperial Herco, it’s a simple camera that uses 620 film and has a fixed-focus lens and single-speed shutter.

I’d guess that mechanically, the Debonair about the same as the Herco. The shutter speed, based on the exposures I made with my test roll, is probably also around 1/30 sec.

The lens is similar in characteristics to the Herco, varies slightly. Similarly, it’s sharp in the center and shows heavy vignetting. The focused area in the center seems even sharper than on the Herco, but the fall-off into blur is more rapid and more out-of-focus, too. The viewfinder is much larger than the Herco, though, and much brighter.

What really wins you over with this camera is the beautiful Art Deco lines and asymmetric design.

Imperial Debonair side view
A side view of the brown bakelite Imperial Debonair, another Herbert George box camera from about 1960. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The viewfinder is set off-center, perhaps to make it possible to attach the rubber wrist strap to the center. The camera balances nicely on the strap with this placement. Also asymmetric, the boss with the shutter button extends from the side of the box, giving you a meaty place to wrap your thumb around and snap frames.

The film advance knob is a little shallow but still pretty easy to operate, even with my fat fingers.

The best single feature, visually, is the beautiful chrome shade over the lens. It reminds me of a machine-age traffic light, and it’s a really great element to round out the Streamline Moderne design (one of my favorite schools of Art Deco).

The box is clipped closed with a sturdy metal clip on the bottom of the camera. While it sounds like they lose their tension over time, mine is still full of life and holds the camera closed quite nicely.

The Debonair was available in black, olive green, brown, and maroon (and maybe more), and served as the basis for an early official Cub Scout camera.

I found the Debonair at a small antique mall in southwestern Fort Collins, Colorado, and paid about $10 for it, which seems in line with what they are selling for on eBay or Craigslist. It’s dark brown with a light cream rubber wrist strap, in nearly new condition. Even the wrist strap still supple and sturdy. Aside from a few tiny spots of surface rust on the clip, the metal is all nearly perfect.

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Imperial Debonair box camera
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  • Michael McDermott

    Ran across your site because of another camera and saw this review browsing. Got my attention because that is my first camera that I got for selling Christmas cards in 1959. Still have it along with all the pictures it took between 1960-66 after which a Kodak Instamatic was used. In seventh grade (1965) learned how to develop and print my own film in graphic arts class. That lead to my first real camera, a Minolta SRT-101, in 1971 which I still use. However, it is now part of a very much larger camera collection as I still shoot, develop and print today on my Beseler 23C. All due to this camera here.

    • That’s wonderful to hear, Michael. And it illustrates a very good point that even a so-called “toy” camera can serve as a “gateway drug” to photography, and more, that when the pictures you make are personally significant, the tool you made them with isn’t nearly as important. Thanks for sharing your story and reminding us of the real importance of cameras like this, which we may have lost touch with in the last 50+ years, or which young, new photographers might never have known of.

      • Michael McDermott

        Memory off a little bit as 7th grade was from 1966-67. It was during this time that two events that gave me my direction and my thrill of photography. Direction came from moving cross country by car from Maryland to Los Angeles. I had only taken family pictures mainly during holidays. The move allowed me to shoot scenic pictures which I loved and that is still my direction to this day. I looked at those pictures tonight and they have the same fall off in the corners that yours do.

        Seventh grade allowed me to pick an elective so I picked graphic arts. I didn’t know what it was other than printing on presses. I did learn how to make paper, set type, and print. If one finished everything one could go into the darkroom. I worked like crazy and was one of only two to make it. The first assignment was to make a pinhole camera and load paper into it. Then outside, expose it and then back in to develop it. I watched the picture appear right before my eyes and rushed out to do it again. I was now hooked.

        My Minolta up the needed skill level trying to learn on my own. While at SDSU a friend in Journalism told me about their photography class which was open to anyone. A semester in the darkroom, along with professional teaching by the instructor, I learned the ins and outs of exposure, composition, depth of field, fill flash and on. I still develop B&W while slides are developed outside and I still get a thrill when they arrive.

        • It’s funny how many hundreds or thousands of times I’ve heard such similar stories, but every one is still special because of the cumulative impacts of all those things on your life, and the meaning that adds to the collective knowledge and recorded emotion of humanity in your pictures. Thank you, again, for sharing.

          As for that falloff in the corners — it’s pretty common (read: virtually guaranteed) in older cameras with simple meniscus lenses. The only real cure that retains the simplicity, and even it isn’t perfect, is to design the lens element with huge coverage — say double the film area, or more. I have a nice Ansco box camera that must’ve taken that into consideration a bit (you can see the falloff is pretty minimal: http://schneidan.com/2014/01/31/ansco-shur-flash-box-camera-review-photos/), Imperial, though, was making much, much cheaper cameras than even the low-end Anscos of the day.