Old Photographs - Photobooths
Occasionally amongst your family photos you may find a tiny photographic print or strip of prints from a photo booth. Wikipedia describes a photo booth as a vending machine or modern kiosk that contains an automated, usually coin-operated, camera and film processor. This page discusses the development of the photo booth and gives pointers to dating these small portraits.
The photo booth has a long history, is ubiquitous today in the UK, being a useful device for correctly formatted photographs for passports, driving licenses, firearm certificates and other identity documents. In addition the photo booth, in its digital format, is enjoying something of a resurgence at the present time as an added amusement at weddings, parties and other events.
Since its arrival the photo booth has proved to be popular – not just for the practical purpose of obtaining an affordable self portrait, but, because the customer is the operator of the machine, for the entertainment value of pulling strange faces at the camera, cramming in with your partner or friends for group shots, and for some even the excitement of stripping off clothing for a more risque image, taken in the dubious privacy of a tiny space behind a flimsy curtain.
Early History of the photo booth
The first patent for an automated photography machine was filed in the USA in 1888 by William Pope and Edward Poole of Baltimore. Other patents followed over the next few years but early machines lacked reliability and required assistance from a human operator.
These pictures from La Nature 1889 show a French automatic machine invented by Theophile Ernest Enjalbert, which was operated with the help of an attendant. The machine was described in Enjalbert's patent application as "Apparatus for receiving coin and for producing and delivering photographs in exchange therefor"
An early commercially successful automatic photographic apparatus was the "Bosco" invented by Conrad Bernitt of Hamburg (Patented in the US in 1890).
These early machines produced tintypes. The first machine to use a negative and positive process was invented by the German, Carl Sasse, in 1896.
What we would now recognise as a photo booth was developed by Anatol Josepho, a Russian immigrant in the USA, His first photo booth appeared in 1925 on Broadway in New York City. For 25 cents, the booth took, developed and printed 8 photos, a process taking roughly ten minutes. In the first six months after the first booth was erected, it was used by 280,000 people. The Photomaton Company was created to distribute these booths nationwide in the US. In 1927 Josepho was paid one million US dollars, plus future royalties, by the company for his invention.
In 1928 Josepho sold the European rights for the Photomaton to an English/French consortium and the Photomaton was introduced into Europe. A Photomaton Parent Company was established in the UK, taking up swanky headquarters in Regent Street. The Illustrated London News of 25 Feb 1928 reported excitedly on what was to become a new phenomenon in the UK:
Shares in the UK company soared on the back of the publicity the company was getting. In June 1928 a Far Eastern Photomaton company was formed to market booths across China. India, Japan. Egypt, Ceylon and Malaya. The share issue was 10 times over subscribed (Leeds Mercury 15 June 1928 p 2) Later other Photomaton companies were formed for the continent, Eastern and Central Britain and for Lancashire and the Midlands. Investors were keen to take up shares in a company with a product which embodied an exciting and profitable future.
In June 1928 the Daily Mirror announced a £100 competition “BOREDOM, GRIEF, SURPRISE, PLEASURE, can all be expressed in your face - try on a photomaton strip and enter for summer photomaton expression competition"
By mid August 1928 Photomaton shares were starting to fall a little and the Directors reported that a new model booth, which didn’t reverse the images, was on the way. They were also developing ways of producing artistic enlargements so that “The strip with its variety of expressions and poses is regarded more and more as a proof for the larger studies”. They warned also of other inferior machines coming onto the market and threatened if necessary to exert their patent rights to preserve their market position.
In October 1928 rumours of a cash bonus pushed shares up higher - 5 shilling shares in the parent co were trading at 17shillings. But, although the Photomaton booth was an innovative attraction, in retrospect it seems as though UK newspapers only carried advertisements for a trickle of these machines appearing in larger department stores, rather than the deluge which investors might have expected.
In Nov 1928 Schofields of Leeds were advertising “Send your friends an enlarged photomaton photograph for Christmas”. Postcards 3 for 1/9d, Cabinet 3 for 5/6 and Boudoir 3 for 10/6d”. The original 8 portraits in 8 positions were 1/-. On 3rd Dec 1929 the Yorkshire Post carried an extensive Photomaton Directors’ report which stated that machines would shortly be installed in the UK at around 50 per month, arrangements had been made for the installation of Photomaton machines at all the principal branches of Boots and Photomaton lorries with mobile machines would shortly be touring to places not already blessed with booths. The Directors further concluded that there were no other machines in the market which were offering a serious challenge to them.
Further advertisements from various stores appeared in the press in 1928 and 1929 highlighting the delights of 8 portraits for a shilling – the example below is from the Dundee Courier and Advertiser 30th March 1929.
The next advertisement is from Britannia and Eve’s June 1929 edition.
By 16th October 1929 the winding up of the Lancs and Midlands company had been halted and shareholders instructed that the business should continue to operate until auditors of the parent company reported on the move to the proposed Photomaton Trading Co. By the 12th November 1929 a new Board was in place at the Photomaton parent company chaired by the Marquis of Winchester. In January 1930 the new Board produced company accounts for the period 1928-1929 showing a £97,000 operating loss and assets worth £2m less than previously claimed – the remaining assets claimed were mainly in the form of intellectual property and shares in subsidiary companies, which the firm’s accountants were quick to state had not been valued by them. At the firm’s annual meeting one of the Directors remarked that the company had hitherto been run more for selling shares than photographs.
In January 1930 the change from the Lancashire and Midlands Photomaton Company to the new Photomaton Trading Co went ahead. In April 1931 shareholders voted to wind up the new Photomaton Trading Co. (The Gazette 17 April 1931 p2514) The American company was also liquidated, but the UK parent company limped on, with a trading loss of £10,000 in their 1932 annual report. By 1938 the original Parent company had been dissolved (The Gazette 7 Jan 1938 p115) As a result of the Photomaton problem the Stock Exchange Committee passed rule prohibiting the public flotation of the shares of any company formed to exploit a new patent until the company had published its first year’s profits.
But the Photomaton booth lived on. By 1938 the British Automatic Company Limited had taken on the distribution of the Photomaton booths which were by this time made in the USA by the International Mutoscope Reel Co Inc in New York City. The British Automatic Company had a long and interesting history. It was founded in 1887 and over the years had installed and run vending machines, weighing machines and amusement machines across Britain, in particular at railway stations. At the same time that Hatry was developing the Photomaton parent company, another of his companies, the Associated Automatic Machine Corporation Ltd, set about buying up a number of other vending machine companies and bought up over 90% of the shares in the British Automatic Co. No doubt because the British Automatic held many valuable site licenses, Hatry’s company continued to trade in the British Automatic name. The Hatry collapse financially damaged this business also, but it managed to survive and continued in being until the 1960s.
In the USA the International Mutoscope Reel Co, then owned by William Rabkin, continued to make improvements to develop the Photomaton and re-named it the Mutoscope Photomatic, later the Delux Photomat. At this point the machine produced a strip of four images, a format with which we are familiar today. It could be that at this point the UK distributors of the Photomaton booth started to use the phrase "New Photomaton", as shown in the mount of the example Photomaton image below. The image here is 2¼ x 1½ in with black border with rounded internal corners.
Photomaton produced postards into which your portrait could be stuck. Below is an example where someone has inserted a Players cigarette card into the oval space provided for the portrait.
As a footnote to the Photomaton story, in 1945 the only press reports which could be found were small ads in the Belfast News Letter stating “Photomaton Machines wanted in any condition. Representative now in Ireland”
In around 1932 photoweigh machines started to appear in the UK. These were machines which took a single photograph on which was recorded the weight of the customer and the date. Landport Drapery Bazaar in the Commercial Road at Portsmouth advertised in the Portsmouth Evening News 14 Mar 1932 p1, “To proud mothers. Here is your chance to secure a PHOTOGRAPH together with the weight of your child - all for 2d - 4 seconds to take and the finished print in 4 minutes. The Photoweigh machine is just inside the Front Door Ground Floor.” A company, Photoweigh Ltd, was registered in the UK on 1/6/1933 to produce and market these machines. Advertisements for staff in some local newspapers suggest that these were machines which had an attendant. For example in the situations vacant column of the Portsmouth Evening News – Thursday 29 June 1939 p12. "TWO GIRLS, attendants for photo-weigh machines, wage and commission.—Apply Photoweigh. Clarence Pier.” A legal case at Blackpool brought under the Blackpool Improvement Act 1902 involved automatic machines placed in pairs on three sites on the forecourt of Blackpool Promenade – described as machines which take one photograph and give one’s weight and the current date. The machines had been in place from 1934 to 1938 (Lancashire Evening Post, Friday 19 August 1938).
More modern Photobooths
In the 1940s in the USA photo booth machines were developed by another company, the Auto Photo Co who rented out rather than sold their machines, thus quickly gaining market share from the photomaton booths.
The Photomaton name lived on in France as is shown by the 1980s advertising leaflet below by Ted Benoit, This is a two sided, folded, A4 leaflet.
In 1954 Photo-me Ltd was registered as a company in the UK to produce and market photo booths. This company is still in existence today and is the world’s leading operator of photobooths and a major supplier of other instant vending equipment. Photo-me has around 27,000 photo booths in place globally. Photo-Me is a British plc company and has been quoted on the London Stock Exchange since 1962. In 1982 Photo-me bought up Photomaton and Photoquick with their international operations. In 1998 they acquired Prontophot and Photomaton France. Photo-me has developed a range of different machines over the years, including a classic version by designer Philip Stark. Today over 8 million customers per year use Photo-me photobooths in the UK.
Photo Booths in Cambridgeshire
It is very difficult to re-construct the spread of photobooths in Cambridgeshire. The arrival of a photobooth wasn’t sufficiently newsworthy to appear in the local press or to be included in a shop’s advertising. Perhaps we can build a picture from readers' memories.
The first press reference relating to a photobooth in Cambridgeshire appears in the Cambridge Independent Press of 17 Jan 1919 p3. This was a report of a case before the local magistrates involving the use of an illegal gaming machine, "The Pickwick", in an amusement arcade at 92 Mill Road, Cambridge. The defendant was the arcade manager, Harry Fordham, aged 21. When police gave evidence describing the amusement arcade they mentioned in passing that there was a photo machine there – but it wasn’t part of the case. Was this some sort of automatic tintype booth? The following is a description of the type of machine this may have been – taken from the US Popular Mechanics Magazine of Oct 1915 p575
Early tintype auto-foto machine from the US, Popular Mechanics Magazine 1915
No trace has yet been found of Photomaton machines in Cambridgeshire, but it is possible that one was installed somewhere. The image below was found in a late 1920s Cambridgeshire family photo album and is cut from a photobooth strip - stuck into the album with the caption "1929". The width of the strip overall is exactly 45mm the image is edged in black with rounded internal corners. This could well be an early Photomaton print, but where was it taken? While most of the photos in the album are Cambridgeshire based, others suggested the owner visited Lowestoft, Heacham, Hunstanton, Great Yarmouth and Eastbourne in the 1920s.
It is not known whether any photoweigh machines were installed in Cambridgeshire - these were probably more popular at coastal resorts. Were there any at Railway stations?
From the 1960s photo booths started to appear in larger branches of Boots and FW Woolworths and in major Post Offices.
Other non-photo-booth photographic systems producing small portraits
There are two systems which produced small portraits which are not photobooths. These are Sticky Backs and the Polyfoto System. This link will take you to a page on Sticky Backs. These are relevant to Cambridgeshire. The very first advertisements for these appeared in both Cambridge and Peterborough Newspapers in 1901 and there was at least one StickyBacks photographer in Midgate Peterborough. This link will take you to a description of the Polyfoto system, 1933 -1969 which was also used in Peterborough and Cambridge, and possibly elsewhere in Cambridgeshire.
Surviving prints- can we date them?
The following pointers may help to date small portraits from photobooths and related sources.
These examples are pairs of images from photobooths. The prints on the left of a child in knitted cardigan and hat are on paper 37mm wide. The make of the photobooth is unknown. The example on the right of an unknown lady may be from the 1970s, on paper stock 40mm wide. The reverse of the paper is branded P.M.I. indicating that it has come from a Photo-Me International booth.
David Simkin's amazing site on Sussex Photographers contains his extensive research into photobooths, stickybacks etc, with many excellent illustrations. This page indexes the relevant material. http://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/AutomaticPhotoBooth.htm
Wikipedia entry on photo booths: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photo_booth
American Photobooth by Nakki Goranin, WW Norton New York 2008. ISBN 10: 0393330761 ISBN 13: 9780393330762
The History of the photobooth, Daily Telegraph by Näkki Goranin: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/donotmigrate/3671736/The-history-of-the-photobooth.html
Behind the curtain - History of the photobooth by Mark Bloch: http://www.panmodern.com/photobooth.htm
Photo-me company website http://www.photo-me.co.uk
Photo booth resources on the net http://www.photobooth.net/.
Photobooth Journal – an amazing blog on photobooths and all things related. https://photoboothjournal.com
How Have Passport Photographs Changed in 100 years www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30988833
Over 200 example images from photobooths on PInterest https://uk.pinterest.com/mvmc/photobooth/