Kodak Rookie Card

Anson over at Pre War Cards has been running weekly sales for a couple months now. I got in on his first couple but recently things are both getting a bit too expensive for me and are getting snapped up super fast. I’m happy they’re so successful for him.

Even though I’m not buying anymore I still look at what he’s selling because 75% of what he shows are things I’ve never seen before.

One such card that he showed last month was a “History of Sports and Pastimes of all Nations” trade card for Arbuckle’s Coffee which showed the United States’ pastimes as of 1893. While the main draw is the fact that it shows baseball, I almost sprained my back snapping forward to take a closer look at the card because it depicted a camera.

Why? Because it was a box camera that looked eerily like a Brownie…only Brownies didn’t get introduced until 1900. Brownie cameras are traditionally credited with creating the amateur photography market due to costing only a dollar (with film and processing being another 50¢)*

*So around $30 bucks for a camera and $15 for film/processing in today’s money.

I was plenty confused, even going so far as to conclude that this card must’ve been printed later and that the copyright date had to be incorrect. This would eventually not make sense to me either since other cards in the set—for example Cuba which is clearly before the Spanish-American War—are clearly placed in the first half of the decade.

The mystery plus the fact that the card depicted a camera placed it solidly on my ebay search list. It’s not that easy to find but late last month one popped up at a much more palatable price and so I jumped on it. Lower grade than the one Anson sold but I don’t care about condition.

When it arrived it was indeed awesome as I got a chance to give it a much better look. The chromolithography printing is great and there’s just so much going on. Not just a camera and baseball, there’s yachting, fishing, bicycling and the circus.

The back is fantastic and details all the front images and more. I appreciate the way baseball is described as the pinnacle of ball sports* but again it’s the description of photography that I like best.

*Very similar in tone to RG Knowles’s building up of baseball.

Amateur photography is a fad that has come in recent years, but it has come to stay. The camera fiend is abroad in the land, and there’s little of note he does not capture.

This still makes me think of the Kodak Brownie first but then I remembered that Kodak released a couple box cameras before the Brownie.

The Brownie is noteworthy both because it was cheap and took roll film. The original Kodak however came out in 1888, cost $25 (over $700 in today’s money), and came pre-loaded with enough paper film to take 100 photographs. I kind of love the simplicity of this camera with how it had no viewfinder and shot circular images to both avoid horizon issues and to have the most-efficient lens usage.

It however is not the camera depicted on the Arbuckle card. The Arbuckle camera has viewfinders so my best guess is that it’s the Kodak No. 2. It’s not an exact match but it’s pretty close and the timeline feels right. Is this a Kodak “Rookie Card”? Perhaps it is.

I love the idea that by 1893 amateur photography is both a fad and clearly not going away. It gives me a sense of how ready people were to not only consume photographs but to create their own. Even an expensive camera like the first Kodak was enough to create enough “photo fiends” for photography to be considered an American™ pastime.

This card and the description on the back really shows how important the first Kodak was to democratizing photography. I can’t imagine how primed the market was by 1900 for something affordable like the Brownie.


This is not only my oldest trading card now but, because of the baseball depiction, it’s my oldest baseball card as well. Where my previous oldest baseball card depended on how you categorized my RG Knowles, this is a no-doubter. It’s very cool to have one that predates Major League Baseball. Once I get a no-doubt baseball card from the 1900s I’ll have a card from every decade starting with the 1890s. That’s kind of amazing to me.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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