The first time I saw a Polaroid camera in the 1960s, it was one of the most impressive things I’d seen. Of course, when you’re a little kid, you’re seeing many things for the first time, so lots of things are impressive.
But the Polaroid camera was different. The photo was self-developing.
Instead of mailing a roll of film and waiting weeks for the pictures to be developed, turned into prints, and mailed back to you, Polaroid pictures were ready almost instantly. And the quality was quite good.
Before instant cameras, you mailed your film to a developer (my mom almost always sent ours to Kodak) and waited for a packet of photos to arrive. The developers always stamped the month and date of development in the margin of each photo, but that might be the only clear thing on a print. Some photos were good, while others might be blurry. But you paid for them all.
With the Polaroid instant camera, you knew immediately whether a photo turned out good or not. If it didn’t, you simply took another one.
The first Polaroid cameras I remember were – aim, push the button, and then remove a chemically-coated cover so that air could get to the photo.
I can still remember my aunt taking a picture and then quickly pulling the photo out, peeling away the top, and then waving the print to draw air across it.
I have no idea if the waving was necessary, but I do recall that virtually everyone who had a Polaroid camera did the same thing. Waiting for the print to develop took just a few minutes. Later, Polaroid prints mechanically popped out of the camera and developed without the chemical cover.
The 1960s was a tumultuous, yet amazing, time. American manufacturing was still solid, the economy was good, the space program led to lots of innovation, and Baby Boomers were everywhere. Lots of new kids meant lots of birthday parties and other celebrations.
All were reasons for families to drop the money it cost to buy a Polaroid camera – $69.95 or pay it out at $1.19 a week (that’s in 1960 money).
After a gathering, folks got to go home with photos.
Ironically, the technology that led to the instant camera did not come from the space race, it came from the question of a little girl almost two decades earlier.
According to a detailed 2012 article posted on boston.com called, History of Polaroid and Edwin Land, the company was a leader in innovation. The article described Polaroid and Land as the Apple and Steve Jobs of their day.
Land started Polaroid in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1930s.
Reportedly, it was Land’s daughter who, in 1944 at age 3, asked her father why she couldn’t see a photo he had just taken of her. Four years later, the Polaroid Land camera debuted for $89.75 (that’s in 1948 money).
How many dads could grant a wish like that for their little girl?
Edwin Land was a wunderkind. He dropped out of Harvard in his early 20’s, yet his name is listed on 533 patents. According to the boston.com website, he’s second in patents only to Edison.
Polaroid started by making products for everything from goggles, to infrared night devices and colored filters for periscopes for the military. Even with all of their other offerings, it was the Polaroid camera that went mainstream in the early 1960s that made Polaroid a very valuable company.
The Polaroid camera captured special moments and decades of history for millions of Americans.
Instant photography never took the place of film cameras, but it certainly put a dent in film sales. But as happens in many industries, new technology displaces the old.
By 1979, Polaroid was making over a billion dollars annually (that’s in 1979 money). But the disposable camera and digital technologies that were just a few years away would spell a near-demise for Kodak, and an end to Polaroid.
The last time I remember using a Polaroid camera was sometime in the 1980s. When disposable cameras came along, vacationing families could grab one in a tourist shop or convenience store. You could take photos and then seal the camera up in a mailer, send it off while still on vacation, and have the prints sent to your home.
By the 1990s, personal computing and digital cameras did away with the need for film and, consequently, expensive photo retakes. You could instantly see if a digital photo was out of focus, and if it was, delete it and take another.
We still do that today, but our cellphones have replaced cameras. They’ve also replaced movie cameras, calculators, typewriters, the Postal Service, and many other things, but that’s another story.
Polaroid filed for bankruptcy in 2001. They filed again in 2008. That same year, they also stopped making cameras and film. It seemed that the company that had changed how we all took pictures was gone forever.
But the fascinating thing about Americans is that we, and I’ve said this before, are quite the nostalgic bunch. In 2009, another company bought the assets of Polaroid. I’m guessing that they also thought that Americans like all things that remind us of our youth.
The phonograph, vinyl records, and most recently, cassette tapes, are enjoying an incredible resurgence. Music artists are putting out new record albums, and old artists are reissuing their music on vinyl.
This nostalgia also extends to photography. The Polaroid camera is also back. So is the film.
I found the new Polaroid One Step 2 camera on Amazon for $119 (that’s in 2018 money, but it’s not much more expensive than the 1948 price of $89.75). The 8-pack of film is around $12.
Why buy one? If for no other reason than it reminds us of a simpler time with those we wish were still here.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Write-Passage-Southerners-View-Then/dp/1548144983
Email John at john@TheCountryWriter.com.