The Elements of a Vintage Study or Office

It occurs to me that there’s a lot of blogs and forums out there these days, dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal. There are those who sail merrily on their way, oblivious to everything, and there are those who have thrown out the anchors at the top of the falls, holding back with all their might, mankind’s devilish attempts to hurl them into the abyss of blandness, cookie-cutterism and lack of personality and style.

Some Sort of Introduction

Websites and blogs such as the famous Art of Manliness, and The Gentleman, and forums such as the Fedora Lounge, were created to educate people about what life, mostly for men, but also for women, used to be. Before we all got tangled up in what Hollywood and the men from marketing and advertising wanted us to look like.

Some people have seen the older ways and in one way or another, have decided that they would like to return to them, or imitate their style in one way or another, ranging from behaviour, dress, grooming, style, and home decor.

In the 21st century world, the odious ‘man cave’ has made its appearance, both in peoples’ homes, and as a term on the internet. It is an odious term. Yes. I have said it, and it is said.

We already have ‘study’, ‘office’, ‘den’, ‘loft’, ‘workshop’, ‘games-room’ and ‘garage’ as sanctuaries of masculinity, and as places for men and their friends to hide themselves away from others, and enjoy themselves in their own privacy, or enjoy their privacy with their chosen circle of friends.

But apparently, none of these terms sufficiently captured the essence of what the ‘man-cave’ is, which is in itself, a rather fluid term which at times seems to defy definition altogether. A man-cave can be anything from a games-room, a home-theater, a library, an office,  study, a private bar or a model-making workshop, tinkering-room or gym. Perhaps this is why older terminology has been replaced by something more suited to capture such a diverse space that the man-cave has become.

But I’m kinda digressing here. Like…a LOT. I apologise…

The Actual Point of this Posting

One of the most common and popular rooms in the house, and one which may well become a person’s man-cave, is the room which in older times was marked as a study, office, or den. In an attempt to inject these traditionally masculine rooms with masculinity once more, some men have chosen to go the oldschool-route, and redecorate and redesign their studies so that they might look like the great chambers of thought and knowledge that they once were, full of books, wood, leather, whiskey and tobacco smoke.

This posting will cover the details that you’ll need if you want to try and pull off that classic, old-world man-cave study/office look from yesteryear. Those big, classy executive-style offices that you see in old houses, in period movies, and old photographs, with all the lashings of wood and leather and steel and brass, glass and soft, fluffy rugs. The traditional man’s office of yesteryear.

The Stuff You Will Need

The Desk

Every good study…has a desk. It goes without saying. But if you’re going for that old-world look, what kinds of desks should you be looking for? There are several to choose from.

The Rolltop

The rolltop desk is a traditional desk-form from the Georgian era, characterised by the curved rolling lid made of linked wooden slats. The desk typically comes in one of two styles: Either with a quarter-circle curved frontage and side-panels, or a more bendy “S”-styled roll, such as what is pictured above. One is not necessarily better than the other, and it’s up to personal taste which one you want.

The rolltop desk has plenty of space for storing little nicknacks, files, stationery and so-forth, and enough space on it to keep a typewriter, or a computer. Provided the computer or typewriter is of the portable, laptop variety, the rolltop lid in most cases, can be pulled down over the machine at the end of the day, without the top of the computer or the typewriter getting in the way.

The rolltop also has lots of little cubbyholes and pigeon-holes. These are extremely useful for things like stamps, bottles of ink, pens, paperclips, staplers, hole-punchers and other desktop equipment that you would need on an infrequent basis, but would need to access in a hurry when you did.

The Slant-Top or Bureau

The slant-top or bureau desk is characterised by its famous drop-down work-surface, which is usually supported by a pair of pull-out supports, either side of the top drawers. Much like the rolltop, this desk-form dates back to the 1700s, but remains popular with those people who like to keep things neat and tidy. Its rather small size forces you to keep clutter to a minimum, and like the rolltop, a simple flip of the lid hides everything neatly away from the sight of others.

The Secretary Desk

The secretary desk is instantly recognisable from its distinctive shape. It’s basically a bureau with a bookcase stacked on top. This is a handy desk-form if you find yourself constantly needing to flip through reference-books during your work, and you’re sick of having to trek across the study to your bookcases and back, to find the information you need. Simply stack your most-used reference-books in the case above your desk!

One of the great things about desks of this type is that the shelf at the top of the desk is the perfect place to put a desk-lamp where it will provide light, but not get in the way of your work. The upper part of the pigeonholes is also great for storing pencil-mugs, drinks and other things that you might want to access when the desk itself is closed and/or locked at the end of the day.

Rolltop and slant-top desks are almost strictly wall-desks. The backs of the desks are up against the wall, literally. Some people don’t like this. They like having a desk which they can access from all sides. What should you look for?

In this category, there are two common forms.

The Pedestal Desk

The pedestal desk is a desk-form so common that its creation goes back probably to the beginning of desk-building. It’s called a “pedestal” desk because it holds the desktop above two “pedestals” which house the drawers and storage-cupboards within. In its numerous guises and variations, the pedestal desk is the one desk-form that has survived well into the modern day.

The one small issue with pedestal-desks, and other all-round desks like this, is that there isn’t any back panel behind which you could hide wires and cables, so they can sometimes present a more messy appearance.

Particularly small pedestal desks with a narrow space between the two pedestals are often called “kneehole” desks, because the space under the desktop is just wide enough for the writer to slide in and put his knees in there. Compare the kneehole desk below, to the larger pedestal desk further up, and you’ll automatically see a difference in size.

The Partners’ Desk

The Partners’ desk is without doubt, the granddaddy of all desks. They’re called partners’ desks because they’re designed to be used by two business-partners, working face-to-face, sharing one big desk, which is essentially two pedestal-desks placed back-to-back.

Partners’ desks are MASSIVE. They’re about the size of a small car and have enough surface-area to double as an airfield during times of war. I’m pretty sure that during the Battle of Britain, Churchill allowed the RAF to use his desk as a runway for Spitfires when his majesty’s airfields were bombed out of action. Yes. Their finest hour was won thanks to desk-space.

Yes, I made that up. But the size of these desks was such that during the Second World War, those daring R.A.F. chaps used to refer to partners’ desks as “Mahogany Bombers”, due to their gigantic size. And that’s the truth!

These desks also weigh about as much as a whale after it’s gone through the krill buffet. If you’re looking for a power-desk, you must buy one of these. But be warned, they weigh a lot, and they take up a lot of real-estate. You need a BIG study, office, or man-cave, to fit this in!

Unless IKEA has invented a flat-pack version of this, you’ll never get one home in the boot of your car. You might succeed if you have a truck. Best bet is a trailer of some variety, a moving-van, or a pair of teleport-booths.

Classic Desk Accessories

Now that you’ve picked your desk, you need something to put on it. What kinds of things were common on desks 50, 70, 100 years ago? For the accessories and items that make up that classic desktop look of times gone by, read on.

The Lamp

Unless your awesomeness, sophistication and coolness is such that it generates its own, blinding glow of smug superiority, you’ll need a lamp on your desk. If you want something that will match your beautiful antique or solid-wood desk, and not some smunky piece of junk that you bought at IKEA, then you couldn’t go past a traditional Emeralite desk-lamp…

Commonly called “bankers’ lamps” because of their association with banks and their tellers, Emeralite desktop lamps have been manufactured since 1909! Talk about endurance of design! They were originally produced by the company of H.G. McFaddin & Co., in New York, U.S.A. To this day, the classic brass base and stem, and the swiveling green glass lampshade has remained a popular choice for those seeking old-world lighting charm. The brass is shiny and reflective, increasing the amount of light, and the green lamp-shade provides for a nice dash of colour!

But why is it green?

Although you can get these lamps with their shades in almost any colour, from frosty white to lemon yellow, its most common colour, and the colour which everyone associates with these lamps, is green. Why?

Emeralite lamps (note the name: “Emerald Light”) were made with green glass shades because light shining through the glass was softened by the colour green, and was easy on the eyes, while still providing enough light to be useful. The problem was that early electric lightbulbs could be a tad overpowering (some bulbs made in the Edwardian-era are still burning brightly to this day, a testament to their quality and longevity!). Placing a green shade between the light and the user was meant to soften it and make it less glaring on the eyes.

As bankers and accountants often had to update and check ledgers and balance-sheets, usually written in tiny script, having soft lighting that wouldn’t burn out their eyes was important. This is why the shades are green.

It’s also why those old-fashioned visors (such as worn by bank-tellers and accountants) are green. To diffuse the light and make it less intense.

Enough with the history, where do I get one? You can find them easily at antiques shops, second-hand shops, lighting-shops and office-supply chains. The design is so iconic that there are still people manufacturing the exact same style of lamp today, over a century later. You can pick one up, brand new, for not very much money at all.

A Leather Desktop 

You can’t go past the feel of real leather. Soft, cool, relaxing and smooth. And also an essential on any old-fashioned desk.

In the old days, leather-topped desks (such as the ones seen above), were considered the height of quality. The reason is not always obvious. Some people think that the leather is there purely because it’s there, and it’s there because it’s leather, and leather is expensive and if it’s expensive it’s gotta be quality and…yawn.


Leather is found on old desks because it provides a smooth, soft, cushioned surface for writing. Don’t forget that until the 1950s, most people wrote with fountain pens, or dip-pens. Ever pricked yourself with the tip of a steel pen-nib? I can assure you that it hurts. A LOT.

A pen-nib is sharp enough in some cases, to literally draw blood. Since scraping such a needle-sharp pen-point on a wooden desktop would gouge marks and troughs into it, and make writing a very uncomfortable job, desks were lined with leather to give the nibs a smoother journey across the playing-field. These days, leather-topped desks are mostly purchased for their aesthetics, but if you intend to do a lot of handwriting at your desk (with a fountain pen or a dip-pen), then you should certainly buy a desk with a leather top.

Desk Blotters

What’s that, I hear you say? You can’t find a desk with a leather surface? Or they’re too expensive? Or they’ve been ripped up from years of poor use?

Fear not, intrepid study re-decorator, your grandparents already thought of a solution. They’re called desk-blotters.

Desk-blotters are those big leather pads that you see on executive desks, with the sheets of blotting-paper (yes, that’s what it is, blotting-paper) slotted into their corners. You can buy these things second-hand at antiques shops and places like that, or on eBay. Or you can buy them brand-new from homewares shops and large stationery-chains. Blotting-paper can be purchased in huge A1 sheets from places like arts-and-crafts shops, and big stationery-shops. You may need to cut the paper down to size for it to fit into your blotter, though.

Desk-blotters are handy for a number of reasons. Just like with the leather desk-surface, they protect the nibs of your pens from hard, friction-producing surfaces. They also arrest any drips or spills from ink, or drinks, or food (provided that they land on the blotting-paper, which may be changed and removed as necessary). The blotter also protected the leather surface of the desk underneath, if you didn’t want to damage it, but they also had a role in muffling sounds and providing stability which is necessary for the next item on our list.

The Typewriter

You can’t possibly have a nice, classic desktop setup like what you see in the movies, without a pretty, mechanical typewriter.

Remington Standard No. 16., Desktop Typewriter., Ca. 1933

For a machine that really pops and stands out for all the right reasons, and to match the traditional decor of the room, you’ll probably want a typewriter from the first half of the 20th century. A real vintage or antique machine with chrome and steel, and which has all those classic round glass keys with the chrome rings. Such machines ooze class and style.

However, be warned that typewriters of this style are getting harder and harder to find in working condition these days. All-steel typewriters with the flashy glass keys died out after WWII, and are almost unheard of after 1950. But if you’re looking for one (even a non-functioning one to act as a display-piece), then typewriter models likely to be found in old, pre-war offices and households include the Underwood Standard range, (Nos. 1-6), the Royal No. 10 model, the Remington Standard range (Nos. 10-16), and the L.C. Smith & Bros. Standard No. 8 model.

Be warned: A desktop typewriter of this size and vintage is EXTREMELY HEAVY. A Royal 10 weighs roughly 30 pounds. A Remington of a similar vintage weighs about twice as much. Make sure you have a STRONG desk that can take the weight, but more importantly, can handle the bone-jarring vibrations produced by the machine when it operates.

If a huge chunky desktop typewriter is too much to have on your desk, then you could get a nice vintage portable. You can choose from those made by companies such as Corona, Remington, Royal, Imperial, Continental, Olivetti and Underwood. Portables have the benefits of style, convenience, portability, compactness and smaller price-tags.

To find out more about how to buy your typewriter, read this. 

Having a typewriter in your study has many pluses. Apart from the fact that they’re extremely stylish and photogenic, a typewriter can save your ass if for any reason, you have a computer-failure. Anything from a crash to a blackout, to your printer packing up. Provided your machine’s in working order, in a pinch, a ribbon and a couple of sheets of fresh paper will have your letter, your essay, your business-report or other important document done in a few minutes.

Typewriters are also handy for things like typecasting on your blog, for keeping a diary or a journal, and for running off one-off documents that you really don’t want to have to save on your computer and waste disk-space with.

To muffle any undesirable clanking from your typewriter, and to stop it from shifting around on your desk, you may like to place a typewriter-pad underneath it. In the old days, you could buy these things from any stationery-shop. They’re just thick, square pads of foam or felt that you stick underneath your machine.

If you’re using a portable typewriter, a large mouse-pad, suitably orientated, can be an excellent substitute. A larger desktop typewriter will need something that covers more surface-area, and which will have to be much thicker, to cope with the significantly higher weight. To prevent irritating rattling, clinking or clanking while typing, remove any glass objects (jars, sets of drinking-glasses, etc) off your desk. Even the smallest portable typewriter can produce significant vibrations.

Fountain Pens

A man who loves to write should always have a good fountain pen. Not only are they infinitely classy, they are also much smoother and lighter writers than the modern ballpoint pen. For more information about these classic writing instruments, how to buy them, how to use them, care for them and other information, there is an entire category dedicated to them, which may be found on the menus back at the top of this page, on the left side of the screen.

Inkwell or Inkstand

You couldn’t have a classic desktop setup without one of these, could you? An inkwell, or an inkstand (a pair of inkwells on a stand, with slots and spaces for pens, nibs, and other bits and pieces) was a common desktop accessory, which remained popular long after dip-pens were obsolete. Some inkstands were given away as presentation-pieces or gifts.

The traditional inkstand or inkwell that might be found on a traditional desk would’ve been made of glass, silver, or brass.

Rocker Blotter

If you have a fountain pen, then you need a rocker-blotter. Rocker-blotters, in their various sizes and styles, have been desktop accessories since the Victorian era. They can be made of almost anything, from steel to silver, pewter, brass, leather, and a dizzying array of wood-types.

Rocker-blotters come apart into two-or-three pieces. A strip of blotting-paper (or in a pinch, paper-towel) is slipped over the blotter’s base, and it’s held in-place by the top-plate, which in-turn is held in-place by the knob at the top, which simply screws down. Paper is changed as necessary and as frequently as the blotter’s use requires it.

Magnifying Glass

Every household, or every study, and desk, should have some sort of magnifying device. For stuff like reading maps and small print, a standard, desktop magnifying glass is often sufficient. For a magnifier that won’t look out of place in your new study’s oldschool theme, look for a glass with a silver or brass frame, possibly with a cut-glass handle, like the one pictured above. Glasses like that are heavy and solid in the hands, unlikely to slide off the desk and provide good magnification.

Their extra weight means that they can also double as extra-classy paperweights, if need be.

A Good Drinking-Vessel

Either to be stored at the corner of your desk, or on a separate surface such as a sideboard, you should always have a nice drinking-vessel. What it is depends on what you like to drink. Fine glassware for top-quality alcoholic beverages, or even if you don’t drink alcohol, it can look fine filled with water. If you dislike having to constantly fill up your glass, search for something larger, like a traditional 1-pint pewter tankard.

Relax, modern pewter doesn’t contain any lead, so they’re perfectly safe to drink out of. But if you are the suspicious type, buy a traditional-style tankard with a see-through base. Traditionally made of glass, most modern tankards have see-through bases made of plastic (although some makers do still make tankards with traditional glass bases).

This was an innovation from Georgian times, and was created so that drunken bar-patrons would notice if a Royal Navy pressman had dropped a silver shilling into his beer. Press-gangs would enter a bar and look for drinkers. Accepting a shilling from a pressman was taken as your agreement to enter the Royal Navy. To trick drinkers, pressmen would drop a shilling into their tankards of beer. The drinkers would never see the shilling until the beer was all gone, and they were too drunk to notice it. They’d find the coin at the bottom of their mugs and were therefore hoodwinked into joining the navy.

To beat this crooked system of recruitment, people started making tankards with see-through bottoms so that drinkers could make sure there was nothing hiding at the bottom of their booze.

If you’re really worried about people slipping stuff into your drink, get yourself one of those German beer-steins with the lids on top.


Fewer people smoke today than they did back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, but an ash-tray is a nice thing to have on your desk, even if you don’t smoke. They’re handy as receptacles for things like loose-change, keys, business-cards and other important, but small, fiddly things that you don’t want to lose accidentally. The classic man’s ashtray is typically made of either brass, steel, or cut glass.


Anyone who is in the habit of writing down dozens of little post-it notes, phone-numbers, phone-messages, and other little details on small pieces of paper on a regular basis (like me!) will certainly appreciate a bill-spike.

Commonly found on shopfront-counters, reception-desks and other places where receipts are want to gather, these painfully sharp steel spikes on their metal bases are handy for keeping a tab on little bits of paper which are important enough to keep around, but not large or detailed enough to put in a folder, in a book, or in a drawer somewhere (where they’d probably get lost, anyway). You can pick these things up at places like stationery-chains and nick-nack shops for just a couple of dollars.

I have one on my desk, and without it, I’d forget where I put a person’s phone-number, or the address of someplace, within an hour of writing it down. Having a bill-spike is great for just poking down those flittery bits of paper that some people just have all over their bedrooms, offices and studies. Just write down your note, and poke it on down, and it won’t move anywhere until you want it to.

If your spike has a little coin-catcher, like that one in the photo (mine does), so-much the better. Handy for keeping your loose change in. If it doesn’t, then that’s why you’ve got the ash-tray on your desk for.

Letter Holder

For some people, having a steel bill-spike on their desk can be a safety hazard (if you have kids, for example). An alternative is the traditional letter-holder. Typically made of wood, brass or steel, these things can range from simple one-slot holders, to entire caddies that will hold letters, envelopes, incoming mail, outgoing mail, pens, pencils, scissors, stamps, paperclips, staples and oodles of other things. Handy for storing loose bits of paper in there.


No, not one of those electronic things. I mean a proper inbox! Remember when they used to be made of wood? Handy for keeping documents that you’re working on, spare copy-paper and other things. If you need extra help with organisation, get a matching “outbox” too.


You couldn’t possibly have a vintage office man-cave, without a stapler. And you couldn’t possibly have a stapler more vintage than the El Casco M5, from 1934.

Established in Spain in 1920, El Casco was originally a firearms manufacturer, producing revolvers. But the Depression hit the company like a kick in the nuts. Desperate not to keel over and die, the company turned its precision machining of firearms into precision machining of exquisite desktop accessories…which it still manufactures today. And the M5 stapler is one of its most iconic designs, and is the stapler that you would have to have in any vintage office.

Other Oldschool Office Fixtures

Oldschool Storage Solutions

Pigeon-holes and filing-cabinets kinda rule the roost here. I don’t believe in things really doing double-duty. An object should have a use, and it should be used for that purpose. Having things that double up as something else can be fiddly and frustrating to some people, just as much as it can be space-saving and time-saving for others. Keep a nice old-fashioned filing-cabinet in your office or study. Two or three drawers, possibly four, depending on how much filing you need to do.

And while you’re at it, invest in some of those old beige/custard/buff-coloured manila folders, the ones made of cardboard. I find these handy because you can just write whatever you need to, on the front of the file, in big letters, to save you having to fiddle around with tags and stickers. And some more modern files don’t have surfaces or colour-selections that lend themselves well to this function. Especially handy if you have poor eyesight.

Sound System

For most men, music is a must. To enjoy your favourite rock, jazz, classical, pop, Latin/South-American, or other genre of music, it sounds so much nicer when it’s coming out of something that looks pretty. Or even if it’s just listening to your favourite radio-station, talkback, music, or otherwise. What’s something that you can put in your new, revamped man-space that will look nice and sound nice?

For those of us who enjoy variety, you probably couldn’t go past a Crosley-brand radio-gramophone. Records are becoming more and more popular these days, and people young and old are collecting records, buying new records, resurrecting old records, and dusting off their old collections.  The Crosley record-player shown above is one of many reproduction units evoking the radio-styles of the 30s and 40s. It can tune into AM and FM radio, it can play all your records, ranging from 33, 45, up to 78rpm, and it even has audio-cassette capabilities. Some units of this style even have slots for CDs (keep an eye out for those, if that’s what you’re after).

Some people find themselves listening to the radio more than they listen to their CD, record, cassette or even MP3-collections. Good, old-fashioned tube or transistor-radios are ideal for this. Some people say that vacuum-tube radios, of the kind popular from the 20s-40s, are the ones that produce the very best sound.

Old-fashioned tube-radios came in a number of styles. The two most common are cathedral…

…and tombstone…

…named for their curved, and rectangular/square profiles.

You can buy an antique one that’s been restored, or you can buy a modern reproduction, which will look the part, sound the part, but cost a fraction of the price.

If you have an extensive collection of CDs or records, you might want to buy an old jukebox from the 1940s or 50s…

You can buy original vintage ones, or you can buy modern reproduction jukeboxes, which are designed to play a stack of CDs, instead of a stack of records!

 Seating Solutions

Don’t be a Victorian, and believe that ultra-comfortable seating is something to be considered immoral and rude. Every office man-cave should have a comfortable office-chair. The modern office-chair was invented in the mid-1800s, and was typified by the Centripetal Armchair:

In many ways, this was the first modern office-chair. It came with a swivel seat, rolling caster-wheels, and had models which came with additional features such as headrests and arm-rests. In fact, when it was unveiled in 1851, it was considered so modern and revolutionary that the uptight Victorians were completely horrified by it! Victorian morality dictated that such comfort and pleasure, derived from a piece of furniture, suggested relaxed, loose morals, quite shocking and improper in those days! As a result, despite its revolutionary design, the chair was a poor seller.

Fortunately, such starched, straitlaced attitudes are not so prevalent today, and you can easily go out and by a comfortable chair without fear of immorality.

You don’t have to buy a chair as fancy as that, but any desk-chair should be comfortable and fully adjustable. If you’re going for that vintage look, older chairs were typically made of wood and/or leather. Not plastic or other materials. Chairs like these (particularly ones made of wood) are often pretty cheap and can be bought almost anywhere.

If your room is large enough, then you might also consider the inclusion of armchairs and/or a couch. Handy for visitors, or just as a place to kick back, relax, and have a nap. Or read. Or write.

A Safe Place

What better place to keep things safe than…a safe?

Of course, there are other alternatives, but not all of them are particularly effective. Those pesky “personal” safes that you can buy aren’t really that effective. If it’s small enough to carry home, it’s small enough for someone to steal. And therefore…useless.

What kind of strongbox you buy depends on what you want to keep safe. Some desks come with lockable drawers. If you have a vintage desk with the keys intact, you could use that as your safe. Nobody’s going to try and carry away an entire desk. Some filing-cabinets also have the same feature, for storing important documents.

But if these two options aren’t suitable, and having a floor or a wall-safe isn’t an option, then your best bet is to get an actual, honest-to-goodness safe. Those old-fashioned steel ones that Wil-E-Coyote loves to drop on the Road Runner. A safe like that in working condition, with a known combination, will keep your valuables of all kinds…well…safe!

Of course, these safes come with a few strings attached – They take up quite a bit of space. And they are also extremely heavy! Be glad that some of them come with stands and wheels! But they are handy in storing stuff that you want to have protected. Now, nobody is going to be running off with your precious collection of ‘gentleman’s literature’.


A classic, bentwood tree is always handy. This one belongs to me. Traditionally, hats were placed on the top branches, coats on the lower branches, and things like umbrellas, walking-sticks and canes were placed in the ring around the base. Even if you don’t own a stick or a hat, these things can still be handy as a place to dump your coat when you come in out of the cold. Better than chucking them on the couch, anyway.

Open-Grille Fan

Back in the old days, when health and safety regulations were not what they are today, almost every office or study would have one of these perched somewhere around the room, either on the desk (if there was space…unlikely), or on a stand, pedestal or side-table. Old-style open-grille fans are stylish, easy to clean, and keep you cool the old-fashioned way. Just don’t put your fingers anywhere near it when it’s running, and keep the kids away from it. Or better yet, you could install ceiling-fans. Having a nice collection of paperweights (or paperweight stand-ins) would be important when you have a fan like this in your room.

Rotary Telephone

The old, rotary-dial telephones of the 20s and 30s are iconic, and no vintage office, if you’re trying to recreate one, would be found without one. You can still buy original telephones in working order. Simply plug it into the wall, and let it ring! Some of these old phones have bases and bodies made of steel, so they can be surprisingly heavy. But the good news with such solid construction is that after a heated conversation, you can literally slam down the handset without damaging the unit.

Some Concluding Remarks… 

These are more or less the bare bones essentials that you’ll need to buy, to pull off the look of a vintage office or study, if that’s the angle for your man-cave, or home-office redecoration. You can vary them around a bit and mix them up, but in completion, they’ll turn almost any room into a replica office or home study, straight from 1935.

Any other elements you add in are personal touches to add your own little spin to things. This is my vintage desktop at home:

As you can see, most of the things listed in this posting can be found there. It’s an ongoing project, inspired by my recent purchase of the banker’s lamp in the corner, which in-turn, inspired this posting, for any guy looking to dress up his study or office in a more interesting, vintage style.


A Little Wooden Jeeves – My Vintage Clothes Valet

The Valet Stand

I have wanted one of these things for years, to keep my clothes organised, instead of hanging them on hooks or draping them over the backs of chairs. Ever seen one? It’s called a clothes valet, or a valet stand…

Valet stands were once common in households of the well-to-do, typically, the Middle Class and upwards, who could afford nicer clothes, and could spend the money required for a stand to keep them neat and tidy.

Such stands were common from the 1800s up to the mid-20th century. When men’s daily fashion steered away from trousers, jackets, suits, sport-coats and blazers in the decades after the Second World War, valet stands became less and less useful, and eventually people stopped buying them, and making them. But they are handy pieces of kit for those who still tend to dress in a more conservative or traditional, vintage style.

Valet stands can range from the incredibly simple, to the amazingly elaborate. A really simple stand might just have a coat-hanger on top of a pair of legs with three connector-bars at the base to serve as a coat and shoe-stand. A really elaborate valet-stand can come with a coat-hanger, trouser-bar, shoe-rests, compartmentalised jewellery-caddy, tie-bar, hat-stand…even a chair with built-in nick-nack drawer!

The Backstory

A stand like this would’ve been typical of the style popular from the last quarter of the 1800s up to the postwar period, up to around the 1960s, when men’s fashion took a serious turn. I bought the stand featured in these photographs, today, at an antiques fair, for $5.00!

The clothes valet was standing outside one of the tent-stalls at the antiques fair, with some sort of advertising poster or sign clipped onto it, and it was obviously being used as a sandwich-board or an advertising-stand. And initially, I didn’t think it was for sale. But when I got right up close to it, I noticed a white price-tag hanging from it, which said: “$5.00”.

And my heart just went pitty-patter. I tracked down the stallholder and inquired about this amazing and under-appreciated piece of woodwork standing, unloved and ignored, outside her tent. She said that the price was indeed correct. $5.00. Once she’d removed the clips and the poster, I was welcome to take it, she said. So I coughed up a fiver and walked off with the stand.

The best five bucks I’ve ever spent. You’ll never find one of this vintage, of this style, in this condition, for that kind of money, not even if you tried. This was a real vintage score :D.

The Features of the Stand

So, let’s show you around the stand, such as it is…

Up the top here, we have the tie-bar, then below it, the shoulder-width coat-hanger. Underneath that is the recessed tray for things like watches, cufflinks, collar-bars, tie-bars and other such masculine jewellery.

Beneath the jewellery-tray is the trouser-bar, for hanging your trousers on. And right at the bottom is the…


You simply can’t find beautiful vintage household pieces like this anymore, and I consider myself very lucky to have this, for such a super-low price. It’s in perfect condition, barring a few dings and scratches. Apart from that, it looks almost brand-new.

A valet-stand made today, brand-new out of the workshop, would probably cost you hundreds of dollars, even for a simple bog-standard one. A mid-range stand, looking something like this…I don’t even want to guess! Even antique ones aren’t cheap. I got this for a song, and I couldn’t be happier.

In retrospect, the song should probably be: “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails“. Hahaha!!

It’s absolutely beautiful, it’s been something I’ve chased after for at least five years, and I finally have one, for possibly the lowest price that one of these has ever sold for, barring one that was given away for free. And I don’t ever see something like that happening!

Clothes Valets Today

You can still buy clothes valets today. You can order them online and such. But nothing beats one that was built back in the days when they were an essential for any well-dressed man about town, and might’ve been found in almost any man’s bedroom. The quality, the style and the sturdiness comes as standard, and you can be assured that whoever used this thing before you was just as snappy a dresser as you are.


Say Cheese!: A History of Early Photography

These days, everyone has a camera. A digital camera, a mechanical camera, an electronic camera, a film-camera, even a camera-phone. Today, taking a photograph is easy. It’s literally done in a flash. You can take hundreds and thousands of photos and store them away, you can edit them, caption them, delete them, enlarge them, reduce them, photoshop them, you can have them black and white, colour, sepia-toned, panoramic and almost any other effect or result that we desire. And most of the time, we just don’t think about how far photography has come.

There was a time not too long ago, when photography of any kind was impossible. When the only way to take a picture of something was with paints, canvas, a pen, a pencil, or a stick of charcoal. When everything had to be sketched, drawn or painted by hand, a process that took hours, and even days or weeks to complete. Today, a photograph takes no more than a second. But what was it like when photography was new?

This posting will look at a history of photography, from its invention and earliest beginnings, to the introduction of the first portable, compact film-camera, in the late 1800s.

The Birth of Photography and the First Cameras

The word “photography” comes from the Greek language, from ‘Photos’ meaning ‘Light’, as in “photosynthesis”, and “Graphos”, meaning “writing”, or “drawing”, as in “Graphics”. So literally: “Drawing with Light”.

However, here we are, jumping the gun. To take a photograph, you first need a device for taking pictures. A camera! Where do we go to find the history of cameras?

The first camera was called the “Camera Obscura”. Taken from Latin, it literally means “Chamber of Darkness”, or “Chamber of Obscurity”, or…a darkroom! One of the most important pieces of equipment in all photography!

The Camera Obscura was a chamber which was completely dark inside, except for a single opening or window, which let in light. Think of it as a lens. The light from outside entered the lens, and whatever was outside the chamber was projected onto a wall, or screen, inside the chamber. Without any other sources of light apart from what came through the lens, anything outside the chamber would be clearly seen on the wall, or screen inside the chamber. Clear enough for someone, if they wanted to, to trace the outline of whatever was projected onto the screen, such as a tree, or a building, or even a person! This…was the first camera. And the tracings that it enabled, were the first-ever photographs.

Hardly faster than having your portrait painted, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

And there we have the camera in its essence. A dark chamber with an opening for light and images to enter, and a medium upon which to record the images.

Obviously, having a camera the size of a closet, being moved around on a horsedrawn cart with your own, live-in artist to trace everything that you wanted to capture was hardly practical. Could you imagine trying to take something that bulky on your next holiday to the South Pacific? You’d never fit it in your pocket…

What was needed was something that took all those principles, and made them…SMALLER! Enter a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandre Daguerre (1787-1851)!

Daguerre and the Daguerrotype!

The Camera Obscura proved that it was possible to sketch life-accurate pictures of something. Not some fluffy artist’s impression of what something could look like. But the problem with the Camera Obscura is that it’s literally the size of a house. You’d never be able to take it anywhere with you! At least, not with any degree of practicality.

The man who changed this was a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandre Daguerre….Man that’s a mouthful.

Daguerre did not invent the photograph. That credit goes to another Frenchman, Nicephore Niepce (1765-1833). Niepce had been experimenting with how to use light to imprint an image onto a medium that could record it, if the medium was coated with a material that was affected by light. He’d had some success, and had been experimenting in the 1820s. He made small steps in 1822, but the world’s first real photograph was taken by Niepce in 1826!

Entitled “View from the Window, at Le Gras”, in this grainy snapshot, you can see trees in the distance, and the walls, rooves and windows of surrounding buildings.

Niepce achieved groundbreaking shots like this by a simple replacing of materials.

While a larger Camera-Obscura used paper as a tracing-medium for a projected image, his smaller camera used a sheet of metal impregnated with light-sensitive chemicals. The metal sheeting was made of pewter (alloy of tin & copper, mixed in a ratio of 9-1), which was then coated with a variety of light-sensitive chemicals.

Niepce originally used silver nitrate, which darkens when exposed to sunlight, but also experimented with lavender-oil mixed with bitumen.

In 1829, Niepce started experimenting with Louis Daguerre, and the two scientists attempted to create something that would reliably produce permanent photographs. sadly, Niepce never lived to see the finished product, and died in 1833. Daguerre continued their work, eventually developing a process using lavender oil, which he named the “Daguerrotype”, after himself. Lavender-oil…must’ve had some lovely-scented photographs.

Daguerrotype photography was the first, commercially successful photography in the world, making its debut in the 1830s. Although capable of producing permanent photos that wouldn’t be damaged by extra exposure to light, the process had one serious drawback: It took forever to develop it!

To take just ONE photograph, the camera would have to be set up, and the shutter in front of the camera-lens would have to be opened (to let the light in, to affect the chemicals on the copper-silver photographic-plate inside) for at least TEN MINUTES before a half-decent photograph was taken! Obviously, this was fine for things that don’t move…buildings, trees, woodland scenes…but it was impossible to capture moving objects, such as horse-drawn transport, or people, unless they were standing or sitting somewhere for a very long time!…like in this photograph, one of the first ever taken using this method…

Taken by Daguerre  himself in 1838, this photograph is the first EVER to depict humans.

Found them yet? Try the bottom left corner of the photograph, at the street-intersection. There, you can see a man having his shoes shined. The shoeshine customer and the bootblack were the only two people in the entire street who were standing still (or at least, holding a general pose) long enough for their outlines to be captured on this early photographic process with the ridiculously long exposure-time!

Taking A Faster Photo

Early photography was rather hit-and-miss. Frenchman Louis Daguerre creates the first “practical” photography in the 1830s. But there’s a big problem. The process takes ages to work. Hardly practical for holiday snapshots, or even family portraits! Photography would never become a thriving industry if a married couple on their wedding-day had to stand around lifeless for 10 minutes just to have their wedding photograph taken! The process had to be sped up!

To do this, they had to change two things about the photography process.


Photography worked because light affected the chemicals placed on metal plates stored inside cameras. The light entered the camera-box through the lens at the front, imprinting whatever image was in front of the camera onto the chemical metal plate inside.

To speed up this process, it was easy…make a bigger lens! Bigger lens, more light, faster development! Brilliant!


Along with better and larger lenses for capturing more light, photographic plates were treated with chemicals which were more light-sensitive, and more reactive. Faster reactions would make the exposure-time shorter and the whole process that much faster. To produce better photos, plates were treated with a variety of silver and chlorine compounds.

Ever wondered why in Victorian-era photographs, people being photographed tend to look rather bored, sleepy and tired with it all? Like this?

It’s not because of that famous Victorian prudishness or morality…it’s because it took so damn long to have their photographs taken! Exposure-times which lasted up to five or ten minutes were not uncommon, and it just wasn’t possible to take photos any other way!

Could you imagine sitting in a chair, looking at a box on a stand with a window in it, and smiling all happily and holding that pose…for ten minutes?

Go ahead. Try it. I’ll wait…

…Your neck gets pretty sore after a while, doesn’t it? And you don’t feel much like smiling and holding it for ten whole minutes while someone takes a shot, do you?

It’s because it took so long, that you got photographs and poses like the one you see above. In fact, it took SO long to take photographs that early photography-studios actually employed metal bracing-stands to hold people’s heads up, so that they wouldn’t lop over and fall asleep during the photoshoot! Don’t believe me? Have a look…

Called ‘posing stands’, such as in this illustration, these apparatus would allow a photographed subject a certain degree of comfort during the taking of his photograph. The subject wouldn’t be able to LEAN against the stand, but he could rest his back, shoulders and head on it if he wanted to, to take some of the strain of the long wait, off of his feet. It was hardly comfortable, but it was the best that they could do at the time.

Alternative Means of Photography

Louis Daguerre had shown that permanent, practical photography was possible. But the big drawback to his method was that the long exposure-times made photography a rather unattractive artform. If photography was going to survive, you needed a way to take faster, better photographs.

The first of these methods was the Ambrotype. 

Developed in the 1850s, the Ambrotype used wet-plate technology. Called the “collodion process”, the photographic medium, which by now had advanced from tracing-paper, to copper-silver sheeting, to a sheet of glass coated with a solution of silver-bromide and chloride, was inserted into the camera. To prevent light getting into the shot and damaging the results, a black cloth hood was held over the camera (like what you might see in those old movies).

The lens-cap on the camera is removed and light is allowed to filter through the camera onto the wet, glass plate. As usual, the image in front of the camera is marked onto the chemicals on the glass. Now, you can take that image and go and develop it!

There was just ONE problem.

Whereas the Daguerrotype was too slow, the Ambrotype was too fast! Why? Because of the very method that the photos were taken! Remember, it’s called ‘wet plate’ technology.

The photograph would only last as long as the glass-plate negative was moist and covered with the silver-compound chemicals. The very moment that the chemicals dried up, the photograph would be lost! To transfer the image to a medium that would record it for posterity (such as paper), the photographer had to work really fast! From soaking the plate in the solution, to loading it into the camera, to taking the shot, to unloading the glass plate and developing the image, the whole process had to be done in under 15 minutes!

Not easy when you’re rushing around with sheets of delicate glass, dangerous chemicals, and heavy, bulky, tripod cameras!

Unsurprisingly, people kept experimenting.

The next method was the Tintype.

‘Tintype’ is a misnomer. There is no actual TIN used anywhere in the photographic process.

The difference here is that tintype used sheets of metal (in this case, iron, instead of copper as with the Daguerrotype) instead of glass.

The process was similar, you still had to soak the iron in silver-solutions to prepare them for photography, but it had the advantage that it was a much faster method of photography. Unlike with the Daguerrotype or the Ambrotype, a Tintype photograph could be taken in just a few seconds or a couple of minutes, since the reaction-time between the silver-compounds and the exposed light is much faster. For the first time in history, it was possible to take several photos in a matter of minutes!

With this improvement in technology, photography really took off for the first time. By the 1860s, tintypes were becoming more and more popular. Remember all those black and white photographs that you see in your history books, from the American Civil War?

A lot of those were tintypes. The quick exposure-time meant that for the first time in history, it was possible for newspaper-photographers to actually go out onto a battlefield and take several photographs, without having to wait all day for the image to impress itself onto the recording-medium! More photographs could be taken in a shorter period of time, with a greater degree of sharpness and quality!

How to take a Tintype Photograph:

Flip the Shot!

Tintype photography was popular because it was fast, easy and relatively practical. For the first time in history, you could have something resembling modern snapshot photography. For portrait photography and family snapshots, wedding-photos and other projects likely to be handled by professional photography studios, the tintype remained the standard for nearly 100 years, from the 1850s up until just before the Second World War.

The ONE…small issue…with tintypes is that you never got EXACTLY what you wanted.

From the earliest days of camera photography, be it a camera-obscura, a daguerrotype, ambrotype or even a tintype, there was always one little compromise that you had to put up with:

What you saw through the camera-lens, was never exactly what you would see printed on paper when the shot was finished and developed. For example, in really early cameras, shots were often projected upside-down. So when the photo was done, you’d have to flip it over to get it right side up.

But there was one other thing. Remember that all these early photographic processes used silver-compounds as the chemical for capturing the light and imprinting the image onto glass or metal. And what is silver used for?

That’s right, making mirrors!

Every tintype photograph EVER taken, was always a MIRROR IMAGE. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this:

This rather grainy photograph was taken in 1879. Two years later, the person in this photograph was killed by the local sheriff.

Who is he? William Bonny AKA William McCarty AKA…Billy the Kid.

This is the ONLY known photograph of Billy the Kid, one of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West. But that’s not why it’s in this posting.

Have a look at the gun with its shoulder-stock resting on the ground by Billy’s feet.

This is a Winchester Rifle, a popular long-arm of the latter half of the 1800s. But notice that, in this photograph, the left side of the gun is exposed to the viewer, and that the loading-slot is clearly visible, above the trigger.

There’s just one problem. Winchester rifles, without exception, had the loading-gate on the RIGHT side of the gun.

Flip the image over, and we have…

…the rifle with its loading-gate on the right side of the gun, which is where it always was.

This photograph was a tintype. And all tintypes, just like this one, came out as mirror-images when they were developed.

Portable Photography

Photography had come a long way from simply tracing an outline of a projected image onto a piece of paper. It was now clearer, faster, and cheaper! But there was still one problem.


For cameras of the period to work, they had to be very still, so that the light wouldn’t be interrupted during its interaction with the photographic medium inside the camera. And the medium-materials used, such as copper, glass and iron plates, were heavy and cumbersome to carry around, to say nothing of the cameras themselves, with their bulky wooden tripods. Along with all his kit, a photographer would need a horse and cart to move around town! Hardly practical. What people needed was a smaller, lighter, more portable camera.

Going Dry

The big obstacle to portability, quite apart from the size of the cameras, was the whole  photography process. Up until the 1870s, all cameras used “wet plate” technology, where the chemicals were added to glass or metallic photographic-plates before they were inserted into the camera. And after the photo had been taken, the plate’s image had to be transferred to paper-stock before the liquids dried up, destroying the photograph. Daguerrotype and Ambrotype photographs made this process messy, tricky, cumbersome and frustrating. To take a picture, you had to have EVERYTHING you needed, right there, right now, on the table. The photographic-solutions, the plates, the paper-stock, the developing-fluids. And as the name suggests, the whole process relied on liquids. The moment everything dried up, it was useless.

This meant that a photographer had to work fast, to capture an image before the photographic solutions dried up, and the image was lost before it could be imprinted onto paper. But it also meant that you couldn’t keep a whole heap of photographic-plates in a case and carry them around with you at will, to photograph whatever you wanted…the plates would dry out…and you’d be left with nothing but lots of sheets of dirty window-glass in your suitcase.

The tintype process was better, if only in the fact that you could take faster photographs, but there were still serious limitations.

It was to speed up the whole photography process that the much more convenient “dry plate” process was developed.

Dry photographic plate technology, the immediate predecessor to film technology, was developed in 1871, by Dr. Richard Leach Maddox, an English physician and photographer.

Dr. Maddox was engaged in the science of photomicrography; or translated from Greek, the visual recording of microscopic entities. In other words, he photographed microbes, and other things which he was able to observe through the lenses of his microscope.

The good doctor loved his work, but he was constantly frustrated by the limitations of wet-plate photographic processes. Quite apart from everything else, he was allergic to the chemicals, and they irritated him when he had to take photographs.

In trying to find a solution, Maddox wondered why it wasn’t possible to condense the liquids used in photography, into a sort of gel or paste? Such a product could be spread onto a glass or metallic photographic-plate just like butter onto a slice of bread. It would be faster, cleaner, and there wouldn’t be any vapors, or chances of spillages. Surely, such a process was possible?

It was. But it took Maddox nearly ten years to figure out how to do it.

Eventually, Maddox figured out how to do it. He layered a standard glass photographic-plate with the usual cocktail of silver-based solutions which were necessary for photography to take place. Then, to protect the solution from evaporation, he coated the whole thing in…gelatin.

The same stuff used to make children’s candies and fruit jellies!

Once the gelatin (which is transparent in its purest form) was set on the glass, it sealed in the photographic solution, which now would never dry out. But it could still be exposed to strong light, so that a photograph could be taken. Brilliance!

It took a while, but by 1879, Maddox’s ingenuity had led to the mass-production of the world’s first dry photographic camera-plates!

Kodak Moments

In the 1870s, English physician Richard Maddox pioneered a way for photographic plates to be more easily handled and made more portable. When the process for manufacturing these plates was perfected in 1878-79, a young man stepped in to start producing these plates on a grand scale.

His name was George Eastman. In his twenties at the time, Eastman set up a factory which could mass-produce these dry photographic plates, making photography faster and cheaper. In 1889, Eastman established his own photography company: Eastman Kodak, one of the most famous in the world.

The word “Kodak” was invented by Eastman himself, after asking for suggestions from his mother. George wanted something that was easy to pronounce, unique, short, and which would not sound similar to any other product, brand or company-name then in existence. After twisting a few letters around, George and his mother, Maria, came up with…”KODAK”.

Young Georgie Eastman had entered the world of photography at a critical moment in history. In 1887, the world’s first photographic FILM had been developed! Building on Dr. Maddox’s dry-plate technology, it was a simple process of changing the photographic medium from heavy, fragile and delicate glass plates, to light, flexible celluloid sheeting, or ‘film’. Film was more compact, much lighter, and far easier to transport.

By now, it was possible to have photography on the move! You had faster exposure-times, cleaner, lighter materials…and more compact cameras!…which were yet to be invented…but improved technology had paved the way for their eventual development.

A Little Black Box

This doesn’t look like much, but it is the great-granddaddy of the fancy, compact digital camera sitting on your desk right now.

This, is the Kodak Box Camera.

Invented by Eastman using the latest film-technology, the Kodak box-camera was the world’s first-ever “point-and-shoot” camera, designed to be idiotproof. You simply wound up the film, aimed the camera, peeked through the viewing-window, and pressed the lever to actuate the shutter and get a snapshot! Easy as pie!…although the exposure-time was still a few seconds, so…hold that pose!

This was the camera that launched the Eastman Kodak Company, and it was the first commercially-produced snapshot camera that anyone could use. Designed to be cheap, simple and functional, it could bring photography; previously an expensive and time-consuming hobby of the rich, to the hands of ordinary people.

With the Kodak camera, it was now possible to photograph rooms, houses, parks, family-outings, one’s children, famous events, significant occasions and almost anything else. Now, everyone could stand together and have a group-shot where-ever they wanted to!

Kodak advertised its new cameras as being super-easy to use. The popular slogan was: “You Press the Button…we do the rest!” 

“The rest”, included the development of the film and photographs, and the loading of the camera. You simply used up the film in the roll, and then you sent the film, along with your camera, to the Kodak offices in America…So long as you lived in America, this might be convenient. For people living in Europe, perhaps not. It was for this reason that the Kodak company didn’t kick it off right away with the Box Camera, but things would improve, once they’d set up branch-offices in other locations.

So what happened when you sent your camera back to Kodak?

The developers at Kodak would open your camera, retrieve the film, develop the pictures, put them into an envelope for you, reload your camera with a fresh roll of film, and then send back your camera, your new film, and your photographs, all in one neat little package! And your camera was all ready for another round of shooting!

The End of Eastman

I’d like to say that George Eastman, the man who brought us the snapshot camera, and founded one of the most famous photographic-equipment companies on earth, lived to a ripe old age and died rich and happy.

Sadly, I can’t.

He did live to a ripe old age…77, and he was rich, but he was hardly happy.

In later life, Eastman was struck down by crippling back-pains. These spinal problems made it impossible for him to stand upright, walk, or even move to any great extent, without serious pain. He was essentially crippled, and confined to sitting in a wheelchair. He suspected that he had inherited the same condition from his mother, who had also had back problems later in life, and who had died in agonizing pain in a wheelchair of her own.

Guessing that he would be in for a long, slow, painful death, Eastman took his own life. He left a brief suicide-note, and then shot himself in the chest. Once. Killing himself instantly. The note which he left to be found, read:

TO MY FRIENDS:My work is done. Why wait?‘”.

George Eastman died on the 14th of March, 1932 at the age of 77.

But while Eastman was dead, the camera was not!

The Kodak box camera, later reborn with the enchantingly cute name of the “Brownie”, was the mainstay of point-and-shoot cameras for years. Decades! Even in the 1960s, you could go out and buy a brand new Kodak Box Brownie!

Shooting for the Masses

It was thanks to portable, film-using cameras such as the Brownie, that gave birth to photography as a real and practical hobby. For the first time in history, shutterbugs were everywhere, snapping everything that moved, and even more things that didn’t. EVERYONE used a Box Brownie. Everyone. Even royalty! Queen Mary; grandmother of the current Queen of England, photographed the royal family on holiday, using her own Box Brownie!

In the late Victorian era and from then onwards, photography as a serious and practical hobby really took off. Now, it really was possible to photograph anything, almost anywhere! Photographs of things previously impossible, due to the size and impracticality of Victorian-era photographic technology, were now commonplace. Picture-postcards became popular. And professional photographers could make a lot of money going around snapping exotic sights and selling them to companies to print off postcards.

In the 1920s and 30s, there was a boom in international travel. Now, with fast steamships, automobile ownership and extensive railway networks, families, couples and singles could flit off on a jolly holiday. And they could photograph everything that they wanted, and bring their memories home with them. A hundred years ago, such things were almost impossible, unless you knew how to draw or paint!

Cameras captured some of the most famous events of the 20th century, now. The Crash of the Hindenburg, the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the launching of the Titanic. Some intrepid photographers even risked life and limb (but mostly life) climbing the unfinished scaffolds of famous Manhattan skyscrapers, to photograph the construction-workers at their job.

Flash Photography

A Flash in the Stand

Especially with early cameras and photographic technology, light was essential for the capturing of images. Exposure took a long time, and bright light was needed to capture an image.

As photographic technology improved and photographs could be taken faster, there remained the issue of getting enough light to successfully take a clear shot of something where light was insufficient. To do this, flash-photography was invented.

The earliest flash-photography used a stand loaded with “flash-powder”, which was ignited by an ignition-switch held in the photographer’s hand at the moment of exposure. The stands, called ‘flash-stands’, and the powder with which they were filled, are iconic pieces of early photographic equipment. They were invented in the 1890s by a man named Joshua Lionel Cowen (last name also spelt ‘Cohen’, because he was Jewish).

Does the name sound familiar? Probably because it’s also the name of a popular line of children’s model trains. No co-incidence…Cowen invented those, too.

Early flash-photography was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The stands were loaded by hand with a measure of flash-powder, which was ignited with a spark at the moment of the photograph. If too much powder had been loaded into the stand, you were more likely to get an explosion rather than a flash! And if you didn’t have enough powder, you were likely to get a rather dark, useless photo that nobody could see! Getting the balance right was a real skill.

A Victorian-era camera with separate flash-stand and powder. Note how close the photographer’s right hand is to the igniting flash-powder

The flash-stand and powder produced dramatic, loud explosions when the flashes went off. This allowed for photos to be taken at night, and in dark rooms where there might not be enough natural sunlight. But there was one serious drawback. The imprecision of loading the powder into the stand was a serious fire-risk. Incorrect loading of the powder could result in a real explosion when the camera went off, and a photographer could have his hand burnt, or even blown off by the blast of the flash if he had overloaded the stand with powder! Nasty stuff…

The dangers of early flash-photography are dramatically shown in this 1939 Mickey Mouse cartoon; “Society Dog Show“. The results are rather exaggerated for purposes of comedy, but improper loading of the flash-stand really could start a fire.

Flashbulb Photography

Early flash-photography using a stand and powder allowed photographs to be taken at night, in dark places, or in places without sufficient natural sunlight. But it had one serious drawback. Because everything was done manually, there was a significant risk of mishap. Too much powder could result in injurious explosions which were not only life-threatening, but also a major fire-risk!

To try and improve the safety and uniformity of flash-photography, the flash-bulb was invented.

Remember those scenes from those period movies of reporters and photographers in the 1930s with their three-piece suits and fedora hats with their “PRESS” cards in them? How they’re waving around their portable cameras with the flash-holders attached? They take a shot and POOF! There’s a loud, distinctive “Pshink!” as the flashbulb goes off, and a dazzling white light blinds you for the rest of the film?

“Take your picture, mister?”

That’s a flashbulb-camera in action.

In fact, they say the flashes were so bright, Hollywood movie-stars in the 1920s and 30s pioneered the wearing of sunglasses so that they wouldn’t be blinded by the constant camera-flashes at important social or industry events.

Flash-bulbs made night, or low-light photography safer, faster and more portable. However, it was still dangerous.

The bulbs worked in the following manner: The flashbulb-holder was attached to the camera which would use it. The bulb was screwed into the socket in the holder. When the shutter was actuated, the flashbulb was ignited and went off!

The famous blinding white light is the result of the ignition of oxygen and magnesium inside the flash-bulbs. Anyone who’s done highschool science will probably know that when you put a match to magnesium, it burns bright, dazzling white. It’s the exact same thing in old-fashioned camera-bulbs.

The big drawback to this was that the intense flash let off a lot of heat. Once one photograph had been taken, you would have to wait for the flash-bulb to cool down, first! If you tried to unscrew it right away and set in a new bulb for another flash, you’d burn your fingers! You could probably overcome this using gloves, of course, but the white hot flash-bulb was still a fire-risk. Throw it carelessly into a waste-paper basket and you could set a whole building on fire!

Improving Things in a Flash!

Edwardian flash-photography allowed photographs to be taken at night, or in low-light conditions. But it was dangerous and prone to mishap. The flash-bulb invented shortly after, made the process faster and safer, but the intense heat generated by burning magnesium flashbulbs made it impossible to take more than one good flash-photograph at a time, unless you could safely remove the used bulb and insert a fresh one without burning your fingers!

In the 1960s, companies like Kodak, with its Instamatic Camera, invented the flash-cube! A fantastic little detachable light-cube that you stuck on the top of your camera. Now, you didn’t have to change the bulb every time you wanted to take a shot, and you didn’t even have to wait for it to cool down! You simply snapped it on the top of the camera, and flash-flash-flash-flash! Four flash-shots in one! Huzzah!

Although expensive, (early cameras of this type went for hundreds of dollars in the 1960s and 70s), they were the next step in flash-technology, until eventually at the end of the 20th century, the flash had been incorporated entirely into the body of the camera; just as it is today, with no bulbs to change, or flip, or replace, or pans to fill with exploding powder. Simplicity…and choice! Now you can choose to turn the flash on, or off, and you don’t have to carry anything extra around with you, to make that choice with.

Sepia-Tone Selections

Almost any digital camera worth its salt today, will have a sepia-tone option on it. It allows you to take photographs in that famous yellowy-browny tinge reminiscent of old-fashioned photographs, which have yellowed and faded in their frames…without having to wait 50 years for it to happen!

But what is this famous tint called ‘sepia’?

The word ‘sepia’ is actually a…FISH.

That’s right. A fish. That swims in water. Specifically, the cuttlefish.

In older times, photographs were inked using the ink taken from the cuttlefish. As photographs aged and the ink was exposed to sunlight, the darker pigments in the ink would fade, and the natural brown colour of cuttlefish-ink became more pronounced as the darker colours faded away, leaving us with the famous golden-brown tinge on old photographs that everyone loves to try and recreate today.

Shake it like a Polaroid Picture!

Aaaah, instant cameras. Magical boxes of incredibleness that seem to defy the laws of physics!

The most famous instant camera, capable of producing instantly-developed film, was of course, the Polaroid camera. What could be simpler? Aim, shoot, print, shake…voila!

The concept of the instant camera dates back to the Roaring Twenties, a time of great technological change and wonder!…but things were not to be. Although the idea for the instant camera goes back to 1923, it wasn’t until the 1940s that something practical was invented.

The man who invented the modern instant camera was a fellow named Edwin Herbert Land (1909-1991). He unveiled his new creation in 1948, and ever since, we’ve been enjoying the benefits of instant photography, which would probably not be surpassed until the coming of digital cameras in the 1970s and 80s.

Land’s invention of the instant camera, and the foundation of the company that would make them (Polaroid), was born out of a nagging request from his daughter, Jennifer, who constantly asked her father why, after taking a photograph, it was not possible to view it straight away. Of course, the photograph had to be taken to be developed, and this lengthy process between taking photographs, and actually getting to see what they looked like, annoyed Land, leading to the invention of his instant camera and instant photographs!

So. What’s with the shaking?

Believe it or not…nothing at all!

The phrase ‘shake it like a Polaroid picture’, came out with the song “Hey Ya”, in 2003!, and it refers to the fact that some people would shake Polaroid photographs in order to try and develop them even faster. But it doesn’t actually do anything at all.

Shaking the pictures was once done by early instant-photographers, in order to dry the pigments used in the development of their photographs. But shaking doesn’t actually help the photograph develop any faster! In fact, it probably screws it up!

What happens when you take the photograph is that the light enters the camera and reacts with the photo-sensitive chemicals on the photographic card, which begin to develop. Shaking the card actually separates the chemicals, and more importantly, the colour-pigments, distorting and damaging the resulting image!

Risks of Early Photography

Especially Victorian and Edwardian photography, was full of risks and hazards, mishaps and dangers. A few have already been highlighted – Exploding flash-powder, scalding-hot flash-bulbs, but one which hasn’t been mentioned is the dangers of developing fluid.

For ages, photographs had to be developed the old-fashioned way, by dipping the photographic cards into solutions, to make the photosensitive chemicals in the paper take on their proper shades and/or colours, to show the image in its fullest clarity.

Although this sounds dangerous enough with chemicals and solutions everywhere, it was made even more dangerous because of the use of cyanide, one of the most poisonous chemicals known to man. Cyanide was used in early photography, when wet-plate processes were still the main form of capturing images. Excessive exposure to cyanide, even in the small amounts used in photography, could lead to poisoning and even death. That’s one way to suffer for your art.

A Clearer Picture?

This is about where my posting on this subject ends. But if you want to know more, here are some of the links I used…

History of Photography

Pieces of Science: A History of Photography

Photographic Timeline

Stephen Fry’s 100 Greatest Gadgets (Documentary).

“Thoroughly Modern”: The Snapshot Camera (Documentary).

…Anything with Stephen Fry in it is inherently educational and conducive to the growth of personal intelligence.