PRINCE'S IMPROVED UTILITY CAMERA
L.M. Prince & Bro., 148 W. Fourth Street, Cincinnati, Ohio circa 1887
L.M. Prince & Bro.'s Improved Utility Camera has caused some controversy regarding who manufactured it, why it was manufactured with a part characteristically found on another maker's cameras and why its front-folding bed design was still being offered as late as 1899.
Prince's Improved Utility Camera appears to be a Blair Utility Camera at first glance and there is no doubt it was either constructed by Blair, or with Blair components. However, there are a few design differences, the most notable being the Rochester Optical Company-style focusing screen lock versus the spring-style back typically seen on Blair's cameras.
FACTS TO CONSIDER IN SUPPORT OF A CONCLUSION
- The Blair Utility was introduced in 1883 by the Blair Tourograph & Dry Plate Company
- The focusing screen's lock is identical to those found on Rochester Optical Company cameras from 1885-1899
- The nickel-plated focusing screen hinge plates and the hardware on this example (other than the focusing screen lock) are identical to those found on the Combination and Triumph Cameras from 1882-1884 by the Blair Tourograph & Dry Plate Company
- L.M. Prince & Bro. was an agent for Blair Camera Company's cameras during the late 1880's
- L.M. Prince & Bro.'s Improved Utility Camera appears in their 1899 catalogue
- Blair's Utility Camera no longer appears in their catalogues by 1886
- Blair was acquired by Eastman Kodak in 1899
REGARDING THE FOCUSING SCREEN LOCK
Was Blair Camera connected to Rochester Optical in any way? Despite their outward competitiveness, many relationships existed between camera companies during the 1880's and 1890's. Both companies could conceivably have used the same suppliers for lenses, hardware and any other photographic supplies they didn't manufacture in-house.
REGARDING THE CAMERA'S DESIGN
Maybe Prince acquired Blair's tooling for the Utility/Improved Utility, as the Blair Company was being acquired by Kodak in 1899. Blair was still offering a few high-end field and self-casing cameras, but along with Kodak, they were focused on the future of roll film photography. It's doubtful either company would have had any interest in a field camera with a folding front by that point.
REGARDING THE CAMERA'S MANUFACTURE
Louis M. Prince (1850-1918) reportedly opened a store in Cincinnati in 1873, selling a wide variety of optical and mathematical instruments, including collections of slides and projectors for them. Per William's Cincinnati Directory for June, 1873, L.M. Prince is shown as associated with A.S. Aloe & Co., which also dealt in photographic supplies. By June, 1874, L.M. Prince is shown as successor to A.S. Aloe & Co., as a practical optician at No. 114 West Fourth Street:
June, 1874 advertisement Source: The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
This is interesting, since A.S. Aloe & Company continued into the mid-to-late 1890's as a photographic supplier. Although this wording has usually been associated with a takeover, perhaps the phrase "Successor to" in the above ad is what we would call today "Formerly of".
By June,1886, Prince and Blair have formed a business alliance as evidenced by their listing which appeared in William's Cincinnati Directory for June, 1886:
Blair & Prince, (T.H.B. & L.M.P.), Photographic Apparatus and Material, 148 W. 4th
By 1887, listings for L.M. Prince, Optician and L.M. Prince & Bro. Photographic Supplies are found, with Louis Prince's brother Aaron having joined him in business. In the 1890-1891 Cincinnati, Ohio Directory, L.M. Prince and Aaron Prince are listed as L.M. Prince & Bro., Importers and Manufacturers of Photographic Apparatus and Material.
By June, 1891, Prince & Bro.'s new address is 134 West Fourth Street. Moving to 108 W. 4th by June, 1896, Prince & Bro. and is now selling bicycles and cutlery, as well, adding architect's supplies by 1899. Prince & Bro. would occupy this address through 1915. In 1902, Prince is also listed as President of the Oak Loan and Building Company, Cincinnati, which was incorporated September 7, 1887.
Several advertisements for Blair & Prince, marketing Blair's Lucidograph and the Perfect Reversible Back Camera:
What can be determined from the William's Cincinnati, Ohio directories, is that Louis Prince was associated with the A.S. Aloe firm in 1874, later forming a business partnership with Thomas H. Blair in 1885/1886 and finally partnering with his brother Aaron Prince by 1886/1887.
The name "Blair & Prince" only appears in the William's directory for one year. With Prince partnering with his brother the following year, maybe Blair & Prince was a short-lived company. However, Prince's association with Blair continued as he marketed Blair's cameras into the 1880's.
The Blair & Prince partnership seems to confirm the origin of the Improved Utility Camera, strongly suggesting that it was built by Blair. Blair had the factory resources to manufacture the camera, whereas Prince who was engaged in the manufacture of scientific instruments during the 1870's was now operating primarily as an optician and photographic supplier. The R.O.C.-style focusing screen lock could have been a move to differentiate Blair's cameras from Prince's. But a more likely scenario was that the R.O.C.-style lock was just state-of-the-art, and Blair didn't need to differentiate his model of the Blair Utility, as he was no longer offering it in his catalogues.
It still doesn't answer why the partnership came about or why L.M. Prince & Bro. was still marketing the 1887 design in 1899, albeit with a spring back. Possibly the Improved Utility Camera was just that, an improvement over Blair's Utility Camera. Maybe Blair intended to phase out the Utility Camera, marketing this "Improved" model though his partnership with Prince. This could also explain why Blair's Utility Camera no longer appeared in their catalogues after about 1885.
As previously mentioned, the possibility of Prince having purchased Blair's interest in the Blair Utility/Prince Improved Utility, and manufacturing the camera with a spring back is probably unlikely. Prince depicted the Improved Utility with a spring back in his 1899 catalogue, but all known surviving examples are equipped with hinged backs.
The example shown here is one of two known 4x5 L.M. Prince & Bro. Improved Utility Cameras having that company's manufacturer's (or marketer's) tag. Given that it has a hinged and latching back vs. the spring back found on later Blair cameras and Blair Tourograph & Dry Plate Company-style hardware, suggests this example probably dates closer to 1886/1887 than 1899.
BLAIR UTILITY AND IMPROVED UTILITY CAMERAS
Blair Tourograph & D.P. Co. 4x5 L.M. Prince & Bro. 4x5 Blair Camera 5x7
Ad from Scovill's The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1888