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The Vest Pocket Kodak Was The Soldier’s Camera

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Colin Harding was filmed in our archives demonstrating the VPK (Vest Pocket Kodak) for BBC Four documentary Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs – the programme will be broadcast tonight at 9pm (GMT).

British soldiers wearing gasmasks, 1917, most likely taken with a Vest Pocket Kodak © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

British soldiers wearing gasmasks, 1917, most likely taken with a Vest Pocket Kodak © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The idea of a compact camera, small enough to slip conveniently into your pocket, may seem like a fairly recent innovation. However, like most things in photography, the idea has been around for a lot longer than you might think.

One of the first and most successful ‘compact’ cameras appeared 100 years ago, in April 1912.

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak camera, c. 1914 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak camera, c. 1914 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Vest Pocket Kodak camera, or ‘VPK’ as it was usually known, was one of the most popular and successful cameras of its day. Over 2 million were sold before the model was discontinued in 1926.

During the first decade of the 20th century there was a growing trend toward pocket-sized cameras. In January 1912, The Amateur Photographer magazine commented:

“It is a matter for conjecture in what direction the desire for diminutive cameras (so readily met by photographic manufacturers) is leading the amateur. The limit must be surely reached soon or…no doubt highly effective cameras for plates the size of postage stamps (or smaller) will eventuate.”

The VPK took film negatives slightly larger than a postage stamp – just 1⅝ by 2½ inches. This format was the same as the No 0 Folding Pocket Kodak which had been introduced 10 years earlier. However, improved design and manufacturing the camera body in metal instead of wood meant that the VPK could be made much smaller. When closed, the VPK measures just 1 by 2½ by 4¾ inches.

Vest Pocket Hawk-Eye camera, 1927 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Vest Pocket Hawk-Eye camera, 1927 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

‘Vest’ is the American word for a waistcoat and the camera lives up to its name. As The Amateur Photographer noted in its review:

“The Vest Pocket Kodak does not belie its name, and is small enough to be carried in a waistcoat pocket without inconvenience.”

In use, the lens panel pulls out on a pair of lazy-tongs struts. The basic VPK was fitted with a two-speed ball bearing shutter – 1/25 and 1/50 sec – and a fixed-focus meniscus lens. Many variants with different lens and shutter combinations were also produced.

View of the bellows and struts of a Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak, c. 1914 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

View of the bellows and struts of a Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak, c. 1914 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The VPK was favourably reviewed by the photographic press. The British Journal Photographic Almanac, for example, thought that:

“In the very excellent design and finish of the apparatus we see the familiar determination of the Kodak makers to produce always the best type of a given article. The Vest Pocket Kodak, though taking a very small picture, is nevertheless a thoroughly reliable instrument, and not at all dear at its price of £1 10s (£1.50).”

In 1913, Kodak decided to change the way that the many different roll-film sizes it produced were identified.

Vest Pocket Kodak camera Series III, 1926 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Vest Pocket Kodak camera Series III, 1926 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Up to this time, films had been identified by the type of camera they fitted. To simplify things, a consecutive numbering system, starting from 101, was adopted, with numbers allocated in the order in which the various film sizes first appeared. Film for the VPK was the 27th roll film format to be produced and became 127 film. A very popular film format for many years, Kodak only stopped producing 127 film in 1995.

In 1915, the ‘Autographic’ Vest Pocket Kodak was introduced.

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Special Camera (Compur Model), 1926 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak Special Camera (Compur Model), 1926 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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.

Jiffy Vest Pocket Kodak camera, 1935 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Jiffy Vest Pocket Kodak camera, 1935 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Kodak bought Gaisman’s patent rights for the then enormous sum of $300,000 and the entire range of folding Kodak cameras, including the VPK, were subsequently redesigned to use autographic film.

The introduction of the Autographic VPK coincided with a boom in camera sales linked with the outbreak of the First World War.

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 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Many soldiers bought cameras to record their travels and experiences. The VPK 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”.

Sales figures rocketed. In 1914 about 5,500 VPKs were sold in Britain. The following year, this increased to over 28,000.

Watch the story of British and German soldiers’ photography during the First World War in Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs, on BBC Four tonight at 9pm (GMT).

Written by Colin Harding

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  1. alifemoment

    Very interessing article, when I was reading it one question came up in my mind. Can you imagine yourself going in the past like in 1912 with your iphone or samsung s4? The people would consider you as a magician or something similar :-)

  2. gwenrichardson53

    Very interesting reading about very.p,k cameras as I like photography my self

  3. Ron McGill

    Is it possible to obtain recordings of transmission on March 13th. 2014

    1. National Media Museum

      Hi Ron. This looks like it’s no longer available on iPlayer. You could contact the BBC to find out how you might get hold of a copy.
      – Emma

  4. Anna

    Good post, although it doesn’t explain how the Vest Pocket Kodak could have been “discontinued in 1926” when there is an example shown from 1927. In the United States they came out with the Vest Pocket Model B in 1926– it looks like the Vest Pocket Hawk-Eye is the British name for the same thing, am I right?

    I own a Vest Pocket Kodak (Model B) that I’ve shot and developed pictures from, and it really is amazing how small they are. Closed, my VPK is almost exactly the width of my iPhone, maybe 3 cm longer, and maybe 2 cm thicker. I can slip it into the back pocket of my (women’s) tight jeans.

    While it’s very simple to shoot with, it’s also quite limited– for an instantaneous exposure you need bright sunlight or maybe very bright light cloud, not within two hours of sunrise or sunset. Otherwise you have to time the exposure– the manual (which I was lucky enough to find a copy of online) has an extensive table of exposure times for everything from taking a picture of someone in a shadow to taking a picture of someone in a low-light room with dark walls (the former is about 1 or 2 seconds; the latter about 40). Nothing closer than I think 6 feet will be in focus. You have to really think about if you can take a snapshot of what you want. Having grown up with totally modern cameras, it’s interesting to experience that kind of thought process– it gives a different, valuable perspective on snapshots of the period.

    1. Dan

      Where can I find the website for the manual? I can’t figure out what the B and T stand for between the 25 and 50 shutter speeds.
      Thanks for the tip. Luckily I live in sunny california so hopefully I’ll get enough use from it!

      1. Carlos

        B. Stands for flash bulb mode. T. Is for time exposer, you can hold the aperture for long exposure under low light conditions.

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  6. Dan

    I have this camera and actually found someone who produces the film they’re called blue fire film

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  8. Dave Boyers

    Interesting article, but I have a VPK with the patent date of March 4, 1902. Does this contradict the assertion the camera was introduced in 1912? I’d like to know. If anyone wants photos of my camera, I’d be glad to supply same.

    1. Carlos

      I would like to see photos of your camera and any photos taken with the camera. Do you know if you can find any of the scribe film mention on the article?

      1. Dave

        Carlos,

        I have two KVP cameras. The older one is a bit rough, and the newer one is nearly “as new”, with box (two parts) and instruction booklet.

        Here is a dropbox link to the photos of both cameras:

        https://www.dropbox.com/sh/eejredoimrcr71o/AACe4toj4ADF3trc5TfACoQia

        I do not have any photos taken with either one, nor can I help you with any source for film.

        -db

      2. Anonymous

        Thanks for the help, No i have not found the scrib film just regular color negative or black and white film that fits. And I did take it out for a test run along hwy 1 the images were blurry because I didn’t extend the bellow all the way. Right now it’s being cleaned lubricated and adjusted and I was having them work on the bellow problem. But I would be happy to send photos etc. whats the best way to do that?

    2. Michael

      Not at all. Many Kodak cameras incorporated features that were patent before the camera entered production. The 1902 is the patent date for a feature included in the VPK.

  9. Al-Vista

    Carlos – actually B stands for Bulb, as in the old-fashioned rubber bulb that operated early pneumatic shutters. It means the shutter stays open as long as you hold it down. T (=Time) means you press twice, once to open and again to close. There were no flashbulbs until much later.
    Dave – There will be Kodak technology still covered by their 1902 patent, incorporated in the design somewhere. Quoted patent dates can be up to 20 years earlier than the manufacturing date. The camera did indeed appear in April 1912.

  10. Anonymous

    I have this camera and would like to sell it. Anyone interested? Terecemugno@yahoo

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    […] were banned from taking photos, and were ordered to send their cameras back home or hand them in.  The VPK was a popular choice among those soldiers who chose to defy this […]

  12. Tideswellman

    Brilliant article. I have just inherited one of these cameras, and wasn’t sure how old it was or anything. Ours is the the B model, not the Hawkeye. Which is a bit puzzling as not of my family travelled to America. Perhaps it was purchased somewhere in the UK later?

  13. Geraldine Jolly

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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