It would be hard to imagine stepping into a Smithsonian museum today and not seeing a single camera. Digital cameras and smart phones with cameras are so completely a part of today’s museum-going experience that - unless a flash goes off in your face – you probably wouldn’t notice the camera next to you.
However, in 1938, you would have seen a very different sight. On August 17 of that year, the Washington Post reported on the “Current Camera Craze” by examining the abundance of cameras appearing at the Smithsonian. At that time, cameras were not allowed in the Smithsoninan’s U.S. National Museum – they had to be checked with the guard at the entrance. This had not been very remarkable in previous years – perhaps six or seven Kodaks would be checked over the course of a day. However, in 1938, cameras started overflowing the guardroom and a checkroom entirely devoted to cameras had to be installed. Eighty cubbyholes were created in February 1938, and by August of that year, they were overflowing again. The Post quoted Smithsonian guard Ruffian Brantley saying overflow cameras are held on an old table nearby.
The guards took this duty seriously. At times, Brantley estimates that the total value of the cameras checked could exceed $5000. In today’s dollars, that would be the equivalent of just under $90,000. That is no small responsibility. If a guard gave out the wrong camera, he or she would have been liable for the value lost. However, that risk does come with some small recompense. If a photographer left his camera behind, after six months it became the property of the guard who checked it. While this may seem like quite the reward, it seems that the guards may not profit as often you might think, “Brantley has found, however, that minicam owners have very good memories.”
What changed in 1938? It is hard to say for sure. Kodak’s Brownie camera, which introduced the idea of the snapshot, came out at the turn of the century. In general, cameras had been getting smaller, better and less expensive throughout the 20th century as technology improved. However, in the mid-1930s, a number of developments made photography a rapidly growing hobby. In 1932, Kodak introduced the first 8 mm amateur motion picture film. In 1934, the Kodak Retina camera hit the market, the first camera to use the 35mm cartridges that prevailed until the digital era. In 1934, KODACHROME film was introduced, the first commercially successful amateur color film.
By 1937, the Harvard Crimson had noticed the Camera Craze, as amateur camera use exploded in the United States. And by the following summer, the Smithsonian was engulfed in a deluge of cameras as Ruffian Brantley can attest.