I picked up a film camera a few years back from a vendor at the MIT SwapFest, a collection of very colorful folks in beat up minivans selling all sorts of things out of a parking garage in Kendall Square. It was a Kodak 1A from the late 1920s – pretty, but also pretty common, so I wasn’t willing to spend what he was asking for it. However, as I haggled on the price, he decided to give me a two-for-one deal! He fished out what looked like a dark wooden box out of one of the many cardboard boxes behind his fold-up table, brought both over, and handed them to me – “does $40 sound good now?”
In the end, I’m glad I took his offer! The mystery box was indeed a camera, but none that I had heard of before.
Thomas Henry Blair was one of the earliest freelance photographers, travelling throughout New England in the 1860s and 70s. As someone on the move, he wanted to make field cameras more, well, suited for the field. So In 1876, he partnered with a factory that produced buttons for winter coats near Waterbury, CT to produce a camera which could be more manageable. He dubbed it the TouroGraph – not sure what the connection to Bulls might be, but it does sound quite catchy!
And catchy it was, because Blair’s newfound camera business supposedly took off. He moved to Boston and continued to sell his camera, adapting it to use dry plates as those became more popular. The business grew through the 1880s and ’90s, until Blair was ousted from the company (I’m not sure why…) and the operation was soon swept up in one of the many Kodak acquisitions. They relocated to Rochester, and continued to exist as a separate brand until around 1908.
That date surprised me – that means this old box was at least 110 years old! I managed to locate a brochure for my model (or at least, a very similar one), which pinned it to 1903 (they switched to metal frames after this year). The brochure listed the base camera at $23 – with inflation, it would cost over $600 today, making it a pretty premium point-and-shoot.
Unfortunately, I’ve been a terrible caretaker, and have kept the No.4 on an open-air shelf for the past couple years. Temperature and humidity swings are terrible for the precise wooden parts inside this camera, and have caused much of the Moroccan leather to crack and peel off the Mahogany body. It was also not in great shape when I picked it up, so it’s not entirely my fault – but I decided to right the wrongs either way, and recondition the outside of the No.4 so that it wouldn’t continue to disintegrate.
The first step was to stabilize the peeling leather bits, of which there were a bunch. I decided to use a neutral pH PVA glue (fancy Elmer’s glue), mixed with a decent amount of carbon black powder. PVA dries quicky, can be removed if necessary without serious solvents, and should allow for some motion as the wood grows and shrinks in the future. I added Carbon Black to hide the cracks in the leather. For very fragile pieces, I applied leather conditioner with a Qtip, and let the piece sit for some time until I bent it back into place. The conditioner helped the leather regain some flexibility, preventing it from cracking further.
With the leather tacked back into place, I refinished the outside with some black leather dye, and several coats of leather conditioner. I was concerned that this would make the outside of the camera waxy or oily, but the 100+ year-old leather soaked it all up over the course of a few days.
I also decided to clean up and explore the shutter mechanism on this machine – the diaphragms were already not working as expected, so I figured there wouldn’t be any harm in trying to fix it. The mechanism only uses a few small levers and springs, but they are quite interconnected, and it was a challenge to understand all of their functions. The two diaphragms on the front of the camera are, I believe, related to the shutter speed – one also has a barb fitting for an air-powered remote shutter, which is an interesting way to implement this! The pistons inside these cylinders actuate levers inside the shutter, eventually causing the shutter plate to slide out of the way. I’d love to explore this further, but I think I’ll save that for the much cheaper Kodak! I broke even on this one – didn’t break anything, but didn’t fix anything either.
While I’m sure my actions here would make any of the experts on Antiques Roadshow cry out in pain, I’m happy that I was able to successfully save this cool piece of history, and it looks quite happy now hanging with the rest of the gang. Which, as I’m looking at them, I realize could probably use a cleanup as well…sigh.
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One thought on “A 115 Year Glow-Up”
Fantastic job. I’ll have to keep those tricks in mind for leather restoration. I don’t know how to fix or calibrate mechanical shutters, but I’ve had some success logging stated-vs-actual timing of questionable shutters by closing a photodiode (clipped to a scope probe) inside the camera, pointing the camera at a light bulb, and taking readings off an oscilloscope.