Vintage Mar-Crest bakelite toy camera

In the third installment of my series on my own eclectic collection of vintage, cheap and other cameras, I reveal (finally!) one of my my bakelite beauties, the Mar-Crest to camera.

The Mar-Crest is one of the many vintage bakelite toy cameras from a group of manufacturers that calls The Chicago Cluster — a group of companies, mostly tied to the same address and marketing the same or similar cheap cameras under dozens of brand names, that may or may not have all been the same manufacturer, or a few manufacturers trading molds. Even though this all took place in the mid-20th century, little enough evidence remains that forming a clear picture has been difficult.

The Mar-Crest toy camera is an example of the McKeown Code B style that was the basis for 20 or more variously branded cameras, including the Brenda Starr Cub Reporter and Dick Tracy cameras. The style was patented by Chicago man named Jack Galter in 1938 or 1939, and was known to be available in the Dick Tracy variety in 1947, and still available (though at a deep discount) in 1957. This 15- to 20-year period of availability makes it impossible to date my camera very accurately.

This mold and several similar ones were used for so many cameras it’s impossible to say this was the one that inspired it directly, but‘s Sprocket Rocket looks strikingly similar.

About the camera:

The Mar-Crest toy camera is molded out of black bakelite with a knurled aluminum film advance knob and steel clips on each end holding the back on. The back has no light seals at all, though it does have a raised lip that fits inside the edges of the body of the camera and, apparently, does hold light out surprisingly well.

The lens appears to be plastic, and the shutter is very simple, and operated by a lever directly on the side of it. Around toward the bottom of the lens is a switch to choose between instant and time mode (bulb). The lens housing has a knurled look that makes you think it might unscrew — but it seems glued in place.

Vintage Mar-Crest bakelite toy camera with box
A front view of the Mar-Crest toy camera with its original box. This bakelite beauty was $8 at an antique mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The casing has a viewfinder molded into the top, which is terribly inaccurate. What you see in the viewfinder is a touch off center and fills only the middle 25% or so of the exposure you make.

Also molded inside the casing is a space (on the far left, seen from the front) for a spare roll of film — an unexpectedly handy and well-thought-out feature in such an inexpensive and poorly made camera.

Another simple snapshot camera, there are no controls for aperture or shutter speed. Based on the overexposure in my test roll, I suspect it’s about f/8.0 and around 1/30th of a second.

The Mar-Crest toy camera appears to have sold for a regular price of $1.98. In this ad from the March 15, 1957 St. Petersburg Times, it was offered at a sale price of $1.29. By July 20th, the same ad in the St. Petersburg Times was clearing them out at just $0.69, leading me to believe they were out-of-production back stock at that point.

About my example:

I found my Mar-Crest at the Brass Armadillo antique mall near Denver, along with a not-too-badly damaged original box, for the bargain price of $8.

It was clean — not even too dusty. The lens and viewfinder, though, were badly covered with dust and other debris. I cleaned them both carefully using cleaner made for plastic LCD monitors and a lint-free swab.

The shutter on mine may not be as fast as it was originally designed to be (or it could be just fine). The photos in the demonstration roll I shot were all grossly overexposed. All were taken in full sunlight (with the sun to my back or side) using ASA100 film. When the camera was originally produced, daylight film was probably DIN12-DIN16 speed, which is the equivalent of a modern ASA12-ASA32 — 2 or 3 stops slower than the slowest (and only) 127 film available today.

The bakelite molding process left a lot of poorly-finished edges internally. This is visible as a few scratches on the negatives — though not nearly as bad as the scratches on the negatives from the Imperial Herco.

The box is worn, but not seriously damaged.

Example of negatives from Mar-Crest toy camera
Here’s an example of the negatives from the Mar-Crest toy camera. You can see the slight light leak at the bottom, the overlap, the extreme overexposure… Click for more photos. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The lens and film path characteristics are where this camera really loses points. The lens isn’t sharp. Really — it’s not sharp at all. It gets worse toward the edges. Yeah, you can see what you’re looking at — but not clearly.

The film path isn’t straight or flat — at all. As you can see in the first example shot the film clearly wasn’t flat. The edges of the exposure aren’t remotely straight. The film isn’t held tightly against the light box, either. There is considerable leakage between frames.

Speaking of light leaks, you can clearly see in a number of shots a large light leak near the bottom center of some frames. I suspect this is because the steel clips holding the back on don’t really hold it all that tightly (although that doesn’t stop it from being rather difficult to open the camera).

The film position windows on the back of the camera are clearly not quite spot on. I slowly moved the film to one window and then the next, carefully centering the frame number each time. On the negatives, each set of two exposures overlap by about 3/16″ and the sets of two are about 1/4″ apart. I think if the second exposure window (on the left) were about 5/32″ further to the left (as you hold the camera to advance the film), the exposures would be spaced more evenly.

The lens produces considerable vignetting, as well. The vignetting appears a bit off-center in my cropped example images because of the exposure overlap discussed above.

So this camera will resume its place on my wall with the others, but I’m glad a put a roll of film through it.

Up next will probably by the Kodak Baby Brownie Special — a recent acquisition that also uses 127 film.

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Mar-Crest toy camera
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