Tisdell & Whittlesey, New York            1886-1893




Tisdell & Whittlesey's detective camera was introduced by June 12, 1886, appearing in an Anthony's Photographic Bulletin as their "New Patent Detective Camera".


A company profile appearing in Illustrated New York: The Metropolis of To-Day 1888, mentions the "T. & W. patent detective camera" as being "the most complete instrument ever constructed". By 1889, an ad in American Amateur Photographer, July to January 1889, referred to it as their "T. & W. Detective or Hand Camera".  Advertisements, such as the one shown below from 1886, incorrectly spelled the name as "Whittelsey". This mistake apparently carried forward for a number of years, as seen in subsequent advertisements.



                                                               From Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, November 27, 1886





The camera was designed by Abner G. Tisdell of Brooklyn, New York, under Patent No. 348,301 dated August 31, 1886. One-half of the patent was assigned to Elbert A. Whittlesey, also of Brooklyn. The extent of Whittlesey's involvement in the design of the camera or in the company's financing is unknown. Tisdell was also granted at least three other patents for photographic shutters and one for an Edison-style reproducer for a disc player.




                                 Source:  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office







                                  Source:  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office





By 1893, the company's name changed from Tisdell & Whittelsey, New York, to the Tisdell Camera & Mfg. Company, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Abner G. Tisdell is listed in Williams' Scranton Directory for the Year 1893, as a camera maker at 406 Spruce, with a home address on Myrtle, It also lists the Tisdell Camera and Manufacturing Co., Walter Henwood, president and H.E. Stillwell, secretary at 406 Spruce. Scribner's Magazine, Volume XIII Jan-Jun 1893 has an ad for Tisdell Camera and Manufacturing Co., Scranton, PA. The Detailed Report of the State Treasurer, May, 1894, lists Tisdell Camera and Manufacturing Co, on account of bonus on charter, $25.


After mid-1894, all references for the Tisdell Hand Camera seem to disappear. Although it's possible that production of the camera may have seized by that point, the company was still in existence. This is evidenced by Patent No. 536,242 granted to Abner G. Tisdell on March 26, 1895 for a two-bladed shutter. The shutter's design appears to have been for a detective-style camera. Possibly as an improvement to the Tisdell Hand Camera's existing shutter that never materialized as production on the Tisdell Hand Camera was halted, or intended for an all new camera that was never introduced.  As early as 1886, Tisdell marketed their Tisdell Candle Ruby Light, supplying magic lanterns, stereopticons and other related supplies over the years.


Available in 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 and 4x5 formats, examples of the T&W Patent Detective Camera have been found equipped with lenses by Dallmeyer, Ross and other lens makers.  The existence of a private-branded Tisdell Mfg. Company 4x5 lens suggests it may have been used on their detective camera as well. For more information on this Tisdell lens, look under the "Lenses" section of this website.

The 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 T&W Patent Detective Camera shown here is equipped with a Perken, Son & Rayment Optimus lens. The lens is readily accessible by pulling upward to remove the viewfinder. The camera's natural wood finish is complimented by the rotating wood panels covering the rear viewing port and the front lens openings. Its original leather carry strap was designed to conceal the viewfinder at top. This camera is equipped with an external shutter release that's mounted flush with the lid. Earlier examples were operated by opening the top lid just enough to cock the shutter, and upon closing the lid, the shutter would trip. A hole can be seen on the latch side of the camera, where a squeeze bulb could have been attached to release the shutter pneumatically. 

The camera is also equipped with two knobs internally: one to focus and one to secure the focus setting.  Other examples have been seen without a focus lock. I've seen at least one example with a focus knob mounted externally on the side of the camera. This configuration mirrors the camera's patent drawing, leading one to assume that a camera so equipped was of earlier production.  Yet, if this is true, why would they move from this configuration to the inside of the camera, when it was so much easier and convenient to focus from the outside of the camera? Having said that, one still had to open the lid to cock the shutter, change out f-stops and to remove and replace the plate holder's dark slide.  

When acquired, this camera contained six, single-sided Barnett Patent Dry Plate Holders. These unique holders were covered by Patent No. 271,402 granted to John Barnett of New York, New York on January 30, 1883, for their hinged and light-weight design.  Later, on January 7, 1890, Barnett was issued Patent No. 419,105 for his Universal Film Holder having a rigid back with overlapping edges to hold flexible films.  Ads for Barnett's Dry Plate Holders appear as early as December 26, 1884, in Scovill's The Photographic Times and American Photographer, Volume XIV, through about 1890.  Another of Barnett's holders, the Patent Universal Film Carrier is seen advertised in Anthony's Illustrated Catalogue for August, 1896, but disappear from Anthony's catalogues by 1898.  I've seen one other T&W Patent Detective equipped with these holders, and if the T&W Patent Detective shown here wasn't sold with them originally, they are certainly period-correct in this instance.  It's an added touch for this camera, as over time, other holders could have been used and Barnett's earlier dry plate holders are rarely seen today.


This example is equipped with a truncated cone in lieu of the pleated black or red bellows seen on most examples.  The truncated cone is believed to be an earlier design than the pleated bellows. An example found on flickr is seen with a box-in-a-box arrangement in lieu of a bellows or truncated cone. Having an external shutter button may suggest that it's a later example, but this is undetermined. The box-in-a-box example may represent one of the earliest versions, in that it appears to be able to store one or maybe two holders at best.  Most 4x5 versions seen today have the ability to store at least four or five holders.

Due to the lack of reference material and advertisements, it's unknown as to whether the 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 format was offered alongside the 4x5 throughout production, or discontinued at some point.  Today, most surviving examples are seen in 4x5. This 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 camera's measurements are 10-3/4" long by 5-3/4" high and 5-15/16" wide, versus another known 4x5 at 12 1/2" long by 7" high and 6 5/8" wide. The top door's latch has a patent date of October, 1871, for which I have no patent information at present.


Despite the relatively few examples that survive, many variations exist.  The camera has been seen:

- with and without panels covering the lens and viewing ports

- with leather-covered and natural wood finishes

- with different lenses

- with various style holders

- with red bellows, black bellows, truncated cone and box-in-a-box

- with and without an external shutter release

- with an internal focus knob only, with internal focus and focus-lock knobs, with an external focus knob located on the camera' side

- with name tags and without

- with name tags having "New York" only, with nametags having "130 Fulton Street, New York"  



Owned at one time by noted camera collector and historian Mike Kessler, this T. & W. Patent Detective Camera is just one example of the iconic "detective" style of cameras that were beginning to emerge in the late 1880's.