Antique & Vintage Photographic Equipment

Kamaret Camera

Blair Camera Company

Name: Kamaret
Manufacturer: Blair Camera Co.
Country of Origin: USA
Construction: A leather covered wooden box camera, with the rollfilm holders in front of the focal plane. See description below.
Production Period: 1891 to 1894?
Thumbnail of Kamaret Advert

The Blair Kamaret introduced a significant design change. It is the first America box camera to have the film spools positioned at the front of the camera, in front of rather than behind the focal plane. This made the camera about one third shorter than the more conventional designs of that period. It was introduced to compete with the increasingly popular Kodak cameras of the period, notably the No 4 Kodak, but its popularity was limited due to legal action taken by Eastman Kodak (see Notes).

This design feature and its benefits was proclaimed in advertising of the period.

The full page advert shown here is taken from Harper's Magazine of May 1891, introducing the camera as "The NEW Photographic Wonder".

Click on the thumbnail image to open a full size version in a new window.

Plate / Film Size: 4 x 5 roll-film
Lens: Rapid Rectilinear
Shutter: Two speed and timed exposure
Movements: None
Dimensions (w x h x l): 5" x 6" x 8"
Date of this Example: c1891
Serial Number: Number 1552 written in pencil on side of film carrier, but no obvious external serial.
Availability:
  • Common [ ]
  • Uncommon [ ]
  • Hard to Find [x]
  • Scarce [ ]
Inventory Number: 496

Description

This example of the Kamaret camera is in very good cosmetic condition, and came into my hands from an American collector. The leather covering of this example is in very sound condition, with no obvious damage. It came complete with its original lens plug. It carries a Blair name plate on the inside of the fold down lens panel.

The shutter still works, although it is prone to jamming when being set. The brass lever needs to be pulled gently forward to set correctly.

The camera halves separate (see instructions) but I have not yet been able to remove the back entirely as it seems to jam - cause unknown. It still contains one film roller. The inside is in good condition. There is an inspection stamp and the number 1552 is written in pencil on one side of the inner body shell. The complexity of loading and unloading the film was apparently a factor that worked against the popularity of the camera [13].

It was necessary to load the Kamaret's rollfilm in a darkroom, as with early Kodak cameras. The camera could be loaded with film up to 100 exposures. Note that the camera does not have a red window (not introduced until later) - rather, at the rear of the camera was a narrow vertical slot that could be opened to examine the film as it passed through the back of the camera between the spools. The film itself was perforated between each of the exposures, allowing the photographer to identify when the next exposure was in place.

The lens has some separation around its edge. It is marked 'Pat Dec 9 - 1890' and Front Lens, with a number 4. According to Eaton Lothrop, A Century of Cameras [5], the Rapid Rectilinear lenses normally supplied with the cameras were made by Darlot in Paris and supplied by Benjamin French & Co in Boston.

The original instruction booklet "The Kamaret Guide Book" is in good condition (dated 1891) - quite a rare find in itself. The booklet has green boards, 24 pages some of which are separating from its string binding; it is sized at 3" x 4" approx.

<Photographs to be added>

The design of the Kamaret was based on patents then owned by, or licensed to, Blair that were to lead to legal arguments with Eastman Kodak. The Kamaret was intended to compete with the Kodak String set camera, and the design incorporated a built-in rollholder with the film spools mounted at the front of the camera, making it about one third shorter than most of its competitors at the time. The rollholder used in the 4 x 5 version, as described on this page, was sufficient for 100 exposures (the same as the original Kodak); the larger 5 x 7 size could load 20 or 50 exposure film. According to the book by William and Estelle Marder on the history of the Anthony company [13], who had a trading arrangement with Blair and advertised the Kamaret, there was also a Petite version for pictures 3" square, but I have as yet to see an example.

Eastman Kodak and Blair were caught up in legal argument after the introduction of the camera in 1891, which was only finally resolved in 1894 with the ruling going in Kodak's favour, as the court determined that the design of the Kamaret infringed other patents held by Kodak. Kodak advertising in this period had cautioned customers against purchasing any camera that appeared to copy the original Kodak. These factors are likely to have affected the popularity of the Kamaret camera at the time and therefore the number that are to be found today.

Notes

Blair's first venture into the photographic industry took the form of the Blair Tourograph Company, based in Connecticut, which produced the Tourograph camera and wet collodion system. The camera itself was made by the American Optical Company (part of Scoville). In 1881, Blair moved the company to 471 Tremont Street, Boston, Massachusetts and undertook his own manufacture of a re-designed version of the Tourograph intended for dry-pate use. The company was renamed at that time to Blair Tourograph & Dry Plate Company. E. & H.T. Anthony were acting as Blair's agent from some time in the 1880s.

The name of the company was shortened to Blair Camera Company in 1886. While various other cameras were manufactured in this early period, a turning point came when he joined forces with Samuel Turner, leading to Blair acquiring the Boston Camera Company in 1890 and with it the Hawk-Eye camera line. The Hawk-Eye Detective camera had been produced by The Boston Camera Company from about 1888, but was modified under Blair, leading to the manufacture of the Blair Hawk-Eye Detective that was to become a serious competitor to Kodak.

In the 1893 Blair managed to persuade business man and millionaire Darius Goff into becoming the major shareholder of the Blair Camera Company. The financial backing this provided allowed Blair to go on to design and launch other cameras, but also to start up a company in England to address the European market, following the same expansion pattern as Eastman Kodak. Samuel Turner left Blair's employ to form the Boston Camera Manufacturing Company, making cameras for Blair to sell through his European business based in London. One of the significant cameras that was to be produced by Turner in this period was the Bulls-Eye box camera that incorporated an innovative (and patented) red window in the rear of the camera, through which frame numbers could be seen on the paper backing on the rollfilm.

While a number of different cameras were produced in this period (consider the '95 Hawk-Eye or the Folding 5 x 7 Hawk-Eye), the Blair Camera Company went from profit to loss in the period between 1892 and 1894 [13, p277], influenced partly by the economic climate at the time but also seriously hampered by the various law suits with Eastman, including an injunction against the manufacture of the Kamaret. Blair's relationship with the board under Goff also soured. Things came to a head in 1895 when Blair left the company and sailed for England where he continued to sell cameras made by Boston Camera Manufacturing Company.

In 1895, George Eastman bought out Turner in order to take control of his daylight-loading patent, although he was unable to get hold of patents for the rollfilm in front of the focal plane (patented by David Houston), the system used in the Kamerat, due to contractual complications arising from the way these had been licensed to Turner [14]. The sale of the Boston Camera Manufacturing Company to Eastman Kodak meant that Blair lost his supplier of cameras. In 1895, Blair returned to the USA and started up The American Camera Manufacturing Company, making cameras such as the Buckeye. as well as other goods including film in order to supply to his European business.

In 1897, George Eastman agreed to buy the original Blair Camera Company from Goff who by then was making losses on his original investment, but Eastman also bought The American Camera Mfg Co from Blair. In purchasing both companies, Eastman Kodak secured a number of important patents, including the Houston patents and another held by the Blair Camera Company for a film with perforations that operated the film counter. Acquiring both companies very likely avoided significant ongoing legal costs arising from the patent disputes between the companies. It also allowed Kodak to adopt the Bulls-Eye name (as used for the No 2 Bulls-Eye Kodak) and the Hawk-Eye name, which was adopted across a variety of folding and box cameras such as the No 2A Folding Rainbow Hawk-Eye camera.

The sale of American Camera Mfg Co to Eastman Kodak seems to mark the end of Blair's involvement in the manufacture of cameras and photographic goods; he remained involved in manufacturing for a time but later in his life he would become a farmer. Thomas Blair died in Northboro, Massachusetts on April 4, 1919 at the age of 64.

The Kamaret turns up from time to time in the US market, but I have only ever seen the 4 x 5 size. The much larger 5 x 7 size is scarce. Irrespective of size, many of the examples that turn up are in rather poor condition - the leather covering is often quite worn and dry; examples in good condition often achieve quite high prices.