Starting today, I will be posting once a week about a bygone source of irrational fear or mass hysteria. Because back then, people were scaredy cat panic-mongers, not the rational cool-headed thinkers of today. Oh wait.
George Eastman—brilliant entrepreneur, mega-philanthropist, dental health obsessive—invented the Kodak camera in 1888. It was much easier to use than previous cameras, and therefore was an overnight sensation. It took barely longer to paralyze Americans with fear. Case in point: The story, “The Kodak Fiend at Cape May,” appeared in a July 1890 issue of the Indianapolis Journal, and told the harrowing story of a would-be beachgoer who nearly escaped the grim fate having her photo taken.
The panic didn’t stop there:
1891: The Chicago Daily Tribune [subscription required] reports that the founder of the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, has issued an order for the arrest of “Kodak sinners” who use their machines in public.
1894: Kodak fiends have been “infesting” St. Cloud, Minnesota, writes the Associated Press. If the Kodak men, who were photographing young women at a band concert were to be caught, the article warns, they “may be summarily induced to abandon the nefarious practice.”
1899: The New York Times [subscription required again, sorry] writes about a “rebellion” in Newport “against the promiscuous use of photographing machines” and the scourge of “kodak fiends” snapping pictures of ladies as they departed from a local tennis tournament.
During this time, President Teddy Roosevelt also banned cameras from national parks including the Washington Monument, for fear the infernal machines would be a violation of privacy.
So what finally settled the rattled nerves of the ladies of Newport and beyond? Ubiquity. Once Kodak Brownie cameras became the rage in 1900 (it was just $1, a massive savings from the original $25 model), and basically everyone had them, the terror abated. Funny, that.