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 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.
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.
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.
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.