Although we don't know what the earliest dedicated 'teaching' or 'toy' cameras
are, or when they were introduced, the 1876 and 1881 Herzog cameras are
certainly among the first, if not the first. In 1876, August Herzog was granted U.S.
patent No. 182,117 (Sept. 12, 1876 - reissued Sept. 20, 1881 as No. 9,878) for an
Improvement in Toy Cameras with an intent to make it easy to inexpensively learn
photography. According to the patent:
..........."My invention relates to an improved toy photographic apparatus,
...........of simple and cheap construction, designed for the instruction and
...........amusement of children and grown people."
One month after the patent was granted; the October 21, 1876 issue of Scientific
American included a brief announcement of Herzog's "Toy Camera" in its New
Miscellaneous Inventions column (page 267):
..........."August Herzog, New York city.-This is a photographic apparatus,
...........of simple construction, consisting of an upright frame, to which a
...........camera, with sliding lens tube, is applied. Supports are also provided
...........for a ground glass and plate holder."
Herzog's first camera - the Popular Photograph Camera - was conceived at a time of
simpler pleasures and must have been quite surprising to a public accustomed to playing
with wooden building blocks, tin vehicles, dolls and carriages, kites and the like - toys
that encouraged active participation and imagination. The late 1870s was also a time of
great transition and business expansion. The first telephone call was made in 1876 and
barely two years later, in 1878, the first commercial telephone exchange opened in New
Haven Connecticut. A year later, on 22 February 1879, Frank W. Woolworth opened his
first 5 cent & 10 cent store in Utica, New York. And most importantly, simpler dry-plate
technology was replacing an arduous wet collodion process. Given these events, it would
seem that the 1870s was a fitting time for a toy camera - an entertainment and learning
tool - that could foster a new generation of photographers eager to embrace easy to
make inexpensive pictures.
Herzog's camera was small and used odd sized 2" x 2½" plates. As with other toys of the
time, it was fundamentally simple. Yet compared to other apparatus, the Popular
Photograph Camera was vaguely photographic in appearance: Think of a partially
completed project which at some point a recognizable camera emerges. This first model is
quite rare with only two examples known. In A Century of Cameras (page 22), Eaton
Lothrop writes that it also sold under the name Centennial Photographic Apparatus, by E.
Sackman & Co., Brooklyn, N.Y., which claimed it as "the most amusing and instructing toy
A. Herzog's American Gem No.2 toy camera for "Family Use"
Copyright ©2013 by Rob Niederman - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
American Gem No.2, 1881
August Herzog. Guttenburg, New Jersey
Designed for the instruction and amusement of children
and grown people When do new technologies get to a point
of being easily learned and adopted? Our lives are surrounded
by undemanding products that started, by today's standards,
as crude and difficult to comprehend and operate. This
includes photographic equipment and processes. At present,
we enjoy highly automated digital cameras, tablets and
smart-phones for effortless picture taking at the touch [or
click] of a button. These 'cameras' practically do all the work
and afterwards digital images can be shared instantly and
globally using any number of social-media applications. Oddly,
the learning curve has shifted from cameras to applications -
but what about really early apparatus?
Starting with the first commercial camera and process
announcement of 1839, education has been an uphill battle.
These days we still consider the daguerreotype process
complex yet, in 1839 and subsequent years, beleaguered
photographers had to be chemists as well as artists to make
images. As photographic technology evolved over time, the
learning curve became somewhat easier but not necessarily
'easy' even as dry-plates started replacing the wet collodion
process throughout the 1870s. Propagation of the art of
photography more or less resided with entrepreneurs and
skilled studio assistants who were fortunate to have been
mentored by a first generation of professionals and
enthusiasts who invested years to master the craft.
Additionally, part of the satisfaction of being a professional
photographer is the ability to control the technical process;
which helps practitioners to more-or-less concentrate on the
image. Over time, an increasing number of amateurs and
beginners jumped in. Big makers watched and responded with
their own amateur equipment outfits, and the so-called
mysteries of photographic technique unraveled and passed
quickly down to new generations of consumers.
In looking at the history of early photographic apparatus and
their makers since its beginnings, there were numerous 'How
to ...' publications and other ephemera that also took on the
role of teaching photography. And by the 1880s, some of
these instruction books included commentary about making
money with cameras; which is a good benchmark of when
technology becomes less challenging to learn and use.