The Vest Pocket Kodak

Today we take for granted the ability to slip a camera into our pocket and carry it around with no issues. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to compact cameras that range from phone cameras that can give any professional camera a run for its money, to small compact cameras that produce high-resolution and punchy images. 

This was not the case 110 years ago when the Vest Pocket Kodak, or ‘VPK’ as its known, first made its debut in April 1912 and went on to be one of the most successful compact cameras for over two decades with multiple models and editions released during that time. 

Left to Right: Vest Pocket Kodak (c.1914), Vest Pocket Kodak Autographic (c.1918), Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Model B (c.1925), Vest Pocket Kodak Series III (c.1926)

Vest Pocket Kodak (1912-1914)

It was just one inch thick when folded and was designed to be “small enough to be carried in a waistcoat pocket without inconvenience” as was noted by an early review in The Amature Photographer. It introduced the world to the 127 film format with negatives just bigger than the size of a postage stamp. The whole thing weighed about 300 grams and with its lightweight aluminum body, it was cheap to produce. When it was introduced to the market it sold for only $10 USD and sold over 2 million units till it was discontinued in 1926. 

Original Vest Pocket Kodak (c.1914)

It was very simple to use, with a lens panel that pulls out a pair of lazy-tongs struts. The original VPK was fitted with a two-speed ball-bearing shutter (1/25 and 1/50 sec) and a fixed-focus meniscus lens. Many variants were produced with different lens and shutter combinations. The original model doesn’t have the Autographic feature which was added to the later models. Within the three years of production, it sold a little more than 200,000 units. It had to be loaded through the top, inserting both film spools at once with the film stretched between them.

In 1913 an American inventor, Henry Gaisman, had taken out a series of patents for a roll film with a thin carbon-paper-like tissue between the film and the backing paper. A small flap in the camera back could be opened to uncover the backing paper. Pressure from a metal stylus caused the backing paper to become transparent, exposing the film. With autographic film, photographers could ‘write’ information on their negatives that would then appear on their finished prints, as can be seen in the image below. Kodak bought Gaisman’s patent rights for the then-enormous sum of $300,000 and the entire range of folding Kodak cameras, including the Vest Pocket Kodak, were subsequently redesigned to use autographic film.

Snapshot of British soldiers in a trench in the First World War, most likely taken with a Vest Pocket Kodak, 1915 © The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak (1915-1926)

When war broke out and with the release of the Autographic model in 1915, these cameras found themself as an essential item of unofficial equipment that soldiers carried to the front. Many soldiers bought cameras to record their travels and experiences. The Vest Pocket Kodak was by far the most popular choice, particularly with American ‘doughboys’. It was widely advertised as ‘The Soldier’s Kodak’ and owners were encouraged to ‘Make your own picture record of the War’. Without the VPK and VPK Autographic, we would not have nearly as many photographs from the Western perspective of the First World War as we do. 

Cameras were forbidden among the British and Commonwealth armed forces, but that didn’t stop many servicemen from taking them to the front lines, and the Vest Pocket Kodak was the most popular choice among them. About 5500 VPKs were sold in Britain in 1914—a figure that more than quintupled to 28,000 the following year.

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Special (1915-1926)

These models were covered with black Morocco leather and were equipped with selected f/6.9 and f/7.7 lenses by Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Zeiss, Ross, Berthiot, or Cooke, mainly with the Kodak Anastigmat f/7.7 lens. According to seen serial numbers, the “Autographic Specials” sold about 300,000 units. Late models had focussing lenses instead of the usual fixed focus. The most sought-after is the focusing Zeiss Tessar f/4.9 version with a 8-speed Compur shutter.

Vest Pocket Kodak Model B (1925-1934)

In 1925 Kodak introduced the Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Model B to take over from the vastly successful VPK and VPK Autographic. All Model B’s were autographic as George Eastman had gone all in on autographic film, but it wasn’t ultimately as successful as Eastman wanted and was discontinued in 1932. 

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Model B (c.1925)

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Model B (c.1925)

The Model B was quite a different camera as it was a primitive folding bed camera making a 4x6.5cm exposure on 127 film. It was also marketed as the Boy Scout Kodak and Girl Scout Kodak with new front plate designs by Walter Dorwin Teague. A colored version was marketed as the Kodak Petite. Its lens was different from the VPK in the fact it was a doublet in rotary shutter or a Kodak Periscope lens in a Kodak Shutter. The lens typically had four apertures, set by a thumb-wheel on the side of the shutter block, and numbered 1-4.

The Model B had to be loaded through the front side, after removing the whole bed and bellows unit. It was produced from 1925 to 1934 and cost $7.50. 

Vest Pocket Kodak Series III Autographic (c.1926)

Vest Pocket Kodak Series III (1926-1934)

In 1926 they continued with the innovation theme and released the Vest Pocket Kodak Series III, originally styled to look similar to the Model B but has the Kodex or Diomatic shutter with more speeds, an aperture selector in f-stops, and a screw thread focusing system. They also originally released a Vest Pocket Kodak Special that had a faster lens, but then became standard on later models. The Series III was also the basis for the colored art deco Kodak Petite, Vanity Kodak, and Coquette versions designed by Walter Dorwin Teague.

The Vest Pocket Kodak and the Mount Everest Mystery

Two climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine lost on Everest in 1924, may have been the first to reach the summit. Another member of the expedition has been quoted as saying that he had loaned his Kodak VPK camera to Mallory as they passed each other on the north ridge. There are extensive efforts underway using current technology to locate Irvine’s body and perhaps, the camera.

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