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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