Updated: Apr 7, 2019
The world of cameras was a world of wood and exacting wood craftsmanship from its beginning until the early 20th century. This work can be seen when the leather is taken off an old damaged box camera (other than Kodak), especially the folding box/plate types. The wood was oak, mahogany, cherry, walnut—all the finest woods to carve, shape, and finish. All corners were dovetailed--an art in itself-- and pieces were tongue and groove. There were no cracks or gaps and the glue joints were still tight, even after 100 years. This was all done with very thin pieces of wood. As roll film emerged,the width of film narrowed. Before,Kodak films from 1895 including 103, 104, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, and 115 were all huge by today’s standards --from 4 to 7in. Several other films were available in 3 ¼ width for so called “pocket” cameras. There were a few smaller for special cameras but the majority that were made and used were the large sizes approximating the older plate sizes. Kodak introduced the 105 size in about 1887 and then the 120 size in about 1901. Ansco followed in 1906, and the race was on for smaller cameras as film speeds and sharpness increased. Correspondingly, manufacturers started making the smaller cameras with a new material: sheet aluminum or brass. This new material brought a world shift in the camera industry—woodworking skills were no longer needed, shapes were not limited to the strength of a small piece of wood, and most importantly, metal could be stamped, shaped and cut by repetitive machine processes. The life-long skills of wood craftsmen were no longer needed.
In the United States, Seneca transitioned incrementally;they madethe ends of its larger cameras octagonal then presented its advanced (for the time) Sagamore: all metal, round ended body, excellent lens—and promptly disappeared forever in a merger/sell out with Conley-Sears in about 1926. Ansco (before Agfa)presented its last wood bodied and first 120 camera in 1914 called the #2 folding Buster Brown. It was a large pocket-sized 120/ 6x9 landscape folding camera with an excellent behind-the-shutter achromat with fixed focus. Within the 1/100 and f64 limitations in the desert, it makes quite acceptable images. The next 120 Ansco was the 1915 Vest Pocket #1--a nomenclature usually reserved for the 127 format--but an honest pocket camera. It had a rectangular brass body with a strut-supported lens unit and box camera features with an unusual fivefold bellows. Not a good picture taker but very interesting. Soon after, the main box body was changed to a rounded-end design with a better lens and the assembly from the #2 Buster Brown Folding camera. This body was changed in 1916 for the V P Speedex, Junior and Readyset series. This change resulted in a portrait format hinged front lens board, which became the production pattern and basic body for the Ansco 120/116 series until Agfa entered the picture in 1926.
Agfa developed its first 120 film,rectangular metal-bodied,in-house design after buying out Ansco. The 1928 aluminum-bodied Billy advertised as the “Little Pocket Camera.” The Billy introduced the blazing orange Agfa diamond logo, and the series names Clack, Record, Optima, and others. The next Billy introduced the well-known Agfa folded body, which wasa slightly modified Ansco 120 brass body, and changed it to steel alloy. The body consisted of two stamped and riveted shells-- the inner back supporting the image frame and the roll film, a front inner shell that supported the bellows, lens, and front door assemblies, and then the back shell that enclosed the film roll. This design was lengthened for 6x9, shortened for 6x6, and shrunk for 35mm. Its components were rotated 90 degrees for horizontal format and for 35mm, and the folding assembly was replaced with a fixed-lens mount that included interchangeable lenses, rangefinders, and reflex 35mm versions. Most of the parts were interchangeable within the film size series. The Ansco design was used on every Agfa folder and rigid lens 35mm design from about 1930 until Agfa collapsed in the 1970s. One time, I counted over 100 Agfa/Ansco roll film, 35mm folders, and fixed lens cameras that used the design- no doubt a very large factor in Agfa’s competition for the world market as most cameras sold before about 1960 were folding types. Can you imagine today using the same design, technique, manufacturing /assembly line, and raw materials for 40 years? What a competitive advantage- until the Japanese entered the market with 35mm cast metal technology.