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Roll of film that started consumer photography in the 1880s returns to its roots

While most Americans now carry a tiny camera in their pockets, the oldest roll of the film that started consumer photography now sits quietly inside a New York museum. The George Eastman Museum recently acquired what’s considered to be the last known roll of Kodak Original 1888 film, putting it on display July 11.

The film was used in Kodak’s first camera, called simply the Kodak camera. Each roll of film took 100 2.5-inch circular images. When the camera was released with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” they meant it — consumers sent the entire camera back in to be processed, and for $10, received the images back and the camera loaded with a new roll of film. The camera itself sold for $25 at the time.

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The film was also where Kodak first became successful after earlier attempts to reach the professional photography market fell flat. Kodak’s first professional film was introduced in 1885.

Along with the original consumer film roll, the museum also acquired a 1889 roll of transparent film, used with the same original Kodak camera. That slightly newer roll of film is one of only three known rolls remaining, and it’s still in its original box, unopened. The transparent film was also used in early motion-picture experiments, according to the museum.

“The debut of Eastman’s American Film and Transparent Film in the late 1880s was the beginning of snapshot photography, and a turning point for the company and the city of Rochester,” said Todd Gustavson, the museum’s technology curator. “We have always kept an eye out for film manufactured in the late 1880s to complete our collection of objects related to the first-generation Kodak camera. We jumped at the chance to bring these two boxes home to Rochester.”

The film joins the museum’s original camera, case, box, and sample photos. Fielding Director Bruce Barnes says the film is one of the most important additions to the museum’s technology collection because of its importance in the role and evolution of consumer photography.

The film joins a collection of photography and cinema items numbering in the millions inside Rochester’s George Eastman Museum, located on the estate of the Kodak founder and the museum’s namesake.