Spartus “120” box camera: An Art Deco masterpiece

Spartus 120 camera
The Spartus “120” camera in all its Bakelite glory. The viewfinder’s position was quite obviously decided for aesthetics over functionality, leading to both parallax error and stunning good looks. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It’s been six months since I picked up the Spartus “120” camera at a thrift store and I’ve enjoyed having it on my shelf and in my bag.

It’s a box camera, and it’s very tempting to point out, repeatedly, how similar it is to so many other box cameras. But I think I beat that horse to death in my review of the Agfa B-2 Cadet, so I’m going to approach this one as if you already know that.

Besides, the Spartus is a little bit special, especially compared to the Cadet.

What it is

A different view of the Spartus
A slightly different view of the Spartus “120” box camera. It really does have great lines. (Daniel J. Schneider)

A product of the enigmatic Chicago Cluster of Bakelite camera manufacturers in the mid-20th century. Inexplicably, Chicago became the epicenter of cheap cameras in the U.S. for some 15 or 20 years, with a handful of factories turning out millions of cameras in thousands of models under hundreds of names, a legacy that’s even led to dedicated collectors.

Founded in 1934, the Utility Manufacturing Company of New York made several types of camera, most notably under the Falcon brand name. In 1941 they were bought by Spartus Corp., a reputable maker of clocks and razors. Spartus moved the camera company to a now-notorious address in Chciago: 711–715 West Lake St.

Over the next twenty years the company would sell a variety of Bakelite cameras, mostly of simple design and cheap construction, under names like Falcon, Spartus, Herold, Galter, Monarch, Mar-Crest and more. For a more detailed history and longer list of related companies, check over on Several years ago I tried out my Mar-Crest camera — which didn’t have any more detailed name than that.

Spartus 120 rear view
The back plate of the Spartus “120” camera comes off completely. Don’t drop it and crack the brittle Bakelite! (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Herbert George Company operated in similar fashion, also out of Chicago, although they didn’t use quite as many brand names. I’ve reviewed my Imperial Herco 620 Snapshot and my Imperial Debonair cameras, both Herbert George products.

Spartus cameras (under any name) were paragons of Art Deco camera design, utilizing Bakelite and thin aluminum panels to great effect. By the time the “120” was made, around 1953, the company was using the name Herold Products, which is molded inside the removable back cover.

The same camera was offered with a flash as the Spartus 120 Flash Camera. That model was more brown in color and had a different face plate with red silkscreening. It was also reportedly offered as the Sunbeam 120. It looks like the flash contacts were present whether the flash attachment was included or not. Not to be confused with the earlier Spartus Model 120 camera.

The camera is made of Bakelite, and while it appears black at first, it has the barest hints of red or brown in the right light. The removable film transport inside the camera was also made primarily of Bakelite.

Spartus 120 film transport
With the back cover removed and the film advance knob pulled out, the entire film transport slides out of the Spartus “120” box camera. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It features a simple leaf shutter with a single speed, which seems to be about 1/40 second, actuated by a metal lever on the side of the box. It has a fixed aperture that appears to be f/22 (I make the focal length at 90 millimeters, and the aperture diameter at just a hair over 4 millimeters; 90 / 4 = 22.5). The lens is a simple meniscus, and mounted in front of the shutter and aperture.

Film advance is achieved with a one-way knurled steel knob on the side of the camera and a ruby window in the back cover.

Loading film is standard box-camera fare; move the empty spool to the take-up side, place the new spool and drag the backing paper around. Replace the film transport, close the camera, and engage the knob and advance until the markings appear in the red window.

As for other features, there’s a viewfinder along one side of the box and a plastic carrying handle on the top. The back cover is secured by a metal clip on the bottom and a spring steel tab on the top.

Short as it may be, that’s about all there appears to be to the Spartus “120”.

First Western Trust Bank fountain
The First Western Trust Bank fountain is one of many in Cherry Creek North. Summer days are full of gurgling when you’re shopping in the area. (Daniel J. Schneider)

How it is

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I like old box cameras. I like explaining what they are to strangers who gawk on the street. I like the utter simplicity of just pressing the button and letting Kodak someone else do the rest.

I also like that most every box camera has its own special character. I suppose I resented that the Agfa B-2 Cadet really didn’t, and I was hard on it.

The Spartus “120” (and I keep using the quotation marks because they’re right there on the faceplate), however, has a lot of character. I don’t know who designed it for the Herold Company, but the way it oozes Art Deco makes me wonder if William Van Alen wasn’t involved.

Cherry Creek North water feature
In summer, water meanders slowly down the levels of this water feature at the corner of East Third Avenue and Milwaukee Street in Denver’s Cherry Creek North shopping district. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The size is great; it fits in the hands quite well and the rounded edges make it comfortable to hold. It stands solidly on the feet molded into the bottom, and a generous collar around the lens protects it from most bumps and bruises. Even after all these years, the plastic handle remains supple and sturdy, and I felt quite comfortable dangling it from one finger while using the other nine to unwrap fresh film, or whatever.

There are two minor sources of discomfort to mar the experience, sadly:

One is the shutter release. The spring behind it is quite firm and the lever is thin steel. The force required to depress it is just enough to make the thin lever a little painful on the tip of the finger.

The other is the viewfinder. It runs the entire length of the camera body, nearly 100 millimeters. The inside appears to have the same glossy finish as the exterior of the camera body and the result is a reflective nightmare. It’s almost like a physical manifestation of vertigo — and I don’t even suffer from that. Nevertheless, while it is mostly functional, looking through it can be a bit off-putting.

I say mostly functional because, while the camera is beautiful, it looks as though function followed form when it came to the viewfinder.

It looks great, but it’s not aligned with the lens in either horizontal or vertical rotation, meaning you’re going to get some parallax error in both orientations. I actually noticed quite a lot of parallax error, though it seemed worse in landscape orientation. Frankly, the viewfinder may just be aimed slightly off, because nearby subjects (see Toni Vilardo, below) seemed to wind up a foot or two to the left of where I expected them.

Toni Vilardo bows
Toni Vilardo, 24, shows off her bow tattoos on her way to work in Cherry Creek North. A hip, young transplant from Iowa, she came to Denver, like so many others, for the beer and the biking. (Daniel J. Schneider)

That said, the photos are surprisingly sharp. Not at the edges — box cameras are rarely sharp anywhere near the edges — but in the middle. Not tack-sharp, but pretty good for a box camera. This might have to do with the small aperture I mentioned above more than the lens itself.

Surprisingly, I saw no appreciable chromatic aberration at all — it’s possible that any aberration that exists is hidden by the overall softness at the edges, however.

The film advance knob is lightly knurled and doesn’t dig into your finger like some. Unfortunately, that can make it hard to get a grip on if your hands are dry or it’s cold out. It’s not a complaint — just an observation.

Cherry Cricket
The Cherry Cricket on East Second Avenue was a trucker stop known for burgers and steaks before becoming Denver’s first sports bar in the 1960s. (Daniel J. Schneider)

As the name implies, the Spartus uses 120 film. The frames are ostensibly 6×9, although they measure more like 55×82 millimeters.

When loading film, the advance knob must be pulled out to remove the film transport apparatus. If you turn the knob a little bit in either direction when it’s fully extended and let it back down, it will stop and remain out of your way for film swapping. The knob turns only one direction (the right direction) when it’s not locked out, and re-engaging it with the take-up spool is quite easy.

The spring steel spool holders are thin and quite loose — they probably rely on being held against the side of the camera body — and that made it a little finicky to get the new film’s backing paper started around the take-up spool before inserting the transport mechanism back into the camera. I managed, though, obviously.

The ruby window is dark — maybe the darkest I’ve seen yet — and the red color can’t even be seen with the camera unloaded. Reading the backing papers on both Ilford and Kodak films was perfectly easy once loaded, though.

So Perfect Eats entry
The tunnel-like entryway leading to So Perfect Eats in Cherry Creek North is always bathed in shadows. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The spring clips holding the rear cover in place seem quite secure, but are very easy to operate. Be careful removing the back cover as it comes completely off and is easy to drop. Bakelite is notoriously brittle, especially in the cold, and could crack or even shatter on impact.

Probably the only basic box camera standard feature missing from the Spartus “120” is a Time or Bulb mode switch. Although, while I noticed its absence when I thought to wonder about it, its lack in no way hindered my using the camera.

All in all this was a fun camera, and it’s just so lovely. I don’t expect I’ll be letting go of it any time soon.

If you look for one, as with any Bakelite camera, be sure to inspect carefully before buying. Look for any chips or cracks, especially in and around the mating surfaces, that might let in light (unless you’re into that sort of thing).

Dancing children statues
Another view of the water feature at Third and Milwaukee highlights the statues of dancing children and the fan-pattern paver plaza surrounding the pool. (Daniel J. Schneider)
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