#005: The Kodak 1888 Camera’s $1 Billion In Sales

In 1888, George Eastman began selling his Kodak camera.

It was a small, black box that could be carried in a small case. This camera would take circular pictures, not the rectangular ones we know today. And it would have enough film for 100 pictures.

Sold for $25 each ($600 today), it is estimated to have sold to 1,500,000 customers. In the 10 years after its debut.

The estimated $37.5MM in sales would be equivalent to $1.1 Billion today.

Kodak released many ads to advertise this new camera. Most of them very similar to the first ad, that it could be considered a “template.”

In this article, I’ll tell you the business decisions that led up to it, show you that first template and takeaways you can apply to your own copy and business.

Humble Origins

George Eastman was born on 12th July, 1854. He was born to George Washington Eastman and Maria Eastman on a 10-acre farm.

He lost his father at the age of 8. And his mother had to take in boarders (and the housekeeping work that required) to make ends meet.

A historian notes George felt bitter about his mother’s struggles to feed him and his two older sisters. And that he promised to repay her efforts and sacrifices one day.

At the age of 14, George finished his formal schooling and went out into the world.

From his teens to his twenties, he worked as an office boy in an insurance company and later a junior officer at a bank.

The bank job paid him quite well.

And it’s no surprise he worked at a bank. He was very exact about money, keeping a notebook of all his expenses to the penny.

He was also unusually organized. George liked to travel. When traveling, he would divide his luggage in exactly equal weight. So that every pack animal carried the same load.

His interest in photography was sparked by a friend from work.

In 1877, George was planning a vacation trip to Santo Domingo.

One of his colleagues had been a photographer on a trip to canyons at the Colorado River. He suggested that George also take some pictures of his upcoming trip as well.

The thing is… one doesn’t simply buy a camera and travel. In those days, you’d need a photographer and their equipment.

There Has To Be A Better Way

These 7 words have started many businesses, even over a century ago.

The biggest challenge at the time was that photos needed to be developed almost immediately after being taken.

This means you would need a photographer, their camera equipment and a way to develop the picture on site.

George thought that was a bit absurd.

So absurd that he figured he could come up with something better.

And that small through grew.

And it grew bigger.

And bigger.

And it became a full-on obsession.

George’s interest at that time was to develop a dry plate. A way of recording an image without needing to develop it immediately.

He knew that being able to postpone the need to develop a photo immediately would open up photography to a HUGE number of people.

About 3 years later, he had 3 things:

  • A dry plate and mass-production machine he had patented
  • About $3,000 ($70k today) in life savings
  • A business partner

And on New Year’s Day, 1881, the Eastman Dry Plate Company officially began business.

From Plate To Film

In 1883, George began working on developing film. He bought a few basic patents from others also working on making film.

By 1884, he was ready to market. He patented the newest invention and renamed his company to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company.

But he still wasn’t satisfied.

While film was great for making photography more accessible, it wasn’t enough.

George had the idea that to create a mass market for photography, he’d need better film.

And a better camera.

At the time, cameras were still large, heavy and mounted on tripods. This made them very impractical to the average person.

A few people were making box-shaped cameras. Like he did with dry plates and film, George thought he could do better.

In 1888, he invented a better camera. He unveiled it to the world.

And it began with a very simple ad.

The Full Ad

The Eastman Kodak Camera 1888 Ad

I know.

After discovering the story of how Sherwin Cody sold $70 Million in English courses to native English speakersthe story of why we wear deodorant, and the story of how Steinway became an industry legend

You probably were expecting a full-page ad with long copy.

Not at all. This was much simpler than even the story of how Camel launched and sold 425 million cigarettes in a year.

But here’s an important lesson about copywriting. It’s not just about what’s on the page. It’s also about what’s not on the page.

This humble ad was edited out of much-longer copy.

Who wrote the long copy? George Eastman himself.

Who edited the short version? Unclear.

How long was the long copy? No clue. But…

I’ve spoken to quite a few entrepreneurs and… let’s just say, they’re never this brief about anything in their business.

So, I can safely guess this:

How long was the long copy? Very long. Probably 10-15 times longer.

Who edited the short version? Probably not Eastman himself.

And the result of that edit is an ad that is simple, clear and even elegant.

Coming Up With The Kodak Name

A lot of the value in this ad comes from the name of the product itself. George came up with the word ‘Kodak’ specifically for this camera.

The story goes that ‘K’ is George’s favourite letter, calling it a “strong, incisive sort of letter.” So he knew he wanted a name that would start and end with K. And he knew that it should be:

  • Short
  • Vigorous
  • Difficult to misspell
  • Mean nothing (to satisfy trademark laws)

With this criteria, he just started trying many combinations of letters and eventually settled on Kodak.

Also, being first to the (mass) market, there wasn’t any need for a headline to do more than just say what the product is.

The Image

The saying goes that a picture can replace a thousand words. And this picture does an amazing job at one thing.

It shows you how compact the camera is.

Generally, there are 3 rules of thumb to pictures in copywriting:

  1. Show the product itself.
  2. Show the product in use.
  3. Show the benefit of the product.

This picture falls somewhere between 2 and 3 for showing hands holding the camera. It immediately gives someone a sense that it is small and portable.

Remember, this is a time when most people’s idea of a camera was a big, heavy, tripod-mounted thing.

The Kodak was that generation’s camera phone.

“You Press The Button, We Do The Rest”

These eight words summarize the business model.

This was George’s plan with the Kodak.

It would be a camera that comes loaded with 100 pieces of film. The average person would buy one and take pictures with it. When the 100 pictures were up, they would send back the camera.

The Eastman company would develop the pictures and replace the 100 pieces of film. The customer would get back a camera ready to take 100 more pictures AND prints of the pictures they took.

And it really minimizes the effort on the prospect. It reduces the process of getting your pictures NOT to owning the camera. NOT to learning an easier-to-use camera. NOT to mailing it back.

But to just…




Surely you can press a button, right?

Body Copy

The only camera that anybody can use without instructions. Send for the Primer, free.

The Kodak is for sale by all Photo stock dealers.

Repetition is a big thing in writing copy. Making the same point in different ways is very important in ads.

So, the first sentence repeats the headline in different words.

There is also an offer for a free Primer. What we call these days a lead magnet. This is important because the camera was $25 ($600 today) which means it wasn’t an impulse buy.

But in case anyone was indeed ready to immediately buy one, they could find it at all photo stock dealers. The ad told you where to find it.

Remaining Copy

We have 3 things here:

  • The company name
  • The product price
  • A distributor address

To build credibility, mention a reputable name. The Eastman Company had already developed a reputation as far as Europe with their dry plates and film.

To give credibility to this idea that there’s a box that anyone can use to take pictures, they add their company name in large, bold font.

The price is… well, the price. But note the words next to it: “Loaded for 100 pictures.” A small note about the unique, added convenience of the Kodak.

And lastly, we have a fallback address/ad of a reliable supplier of all Eastman products. So if, for whatever reason, someone’s local photo stock dealer doesn’t have it… the customer has somewhere they can go.

Key Takeaways

In your business…

  • Make something more accessible to the average person and you’ll make millions. George made photography more accessible to the public with a portable camera that didn’t need films to be developed immediately. He later made it even more accessible by selling a cheaper version of the camera. Today, there are entire businesses built on the idea of making something more accessible to the average person. An easy example is Squarespace for web design.
  • Spend some time thinking up names. While it certainly won’t make or break a business, George was really onto something with the name Kodak. It just… sounds right. If you’re coming up with a business or product name, it might be worth it to try copying George’s process.
  • Hire a copywriter. George was absolutely amazing at making innovations that people wanted. And quite honestly, he had a good grasp of copy for a business owner. He wrote his own ads for years. But that is rare. If you’re interested in taking things to the next level, you need to call a copywriter. It can be the difference between doing okay and doing great.

In your copy…

  • Credibility matters. The more of a reputation you have, the less copy you need to convince your prospect to believe something. This ad likely wouldn’t have worked as well if it was from a company with less/no recognition or presence in the photography world.
  • If your product is expensive, go for a ‘partial sale.’ A partial sale is what John Caples described as offering a free or low-priced information booklet (a.k.a a lead magnet). Don’t let a potential prospect just walk away from your ad without at least offering some incentive to get in touch.
  • Sell your prospect on how EASY it all is. This ad communicates in multiple ways about how much easier using a camera is now. The image shows it is small and light. The sub-heading reduces it to pushing a button. The copy says anybody can use it and they can use it without instructions. Anybody who showed further interest would learn they wouldn’t have to develop the film.
Sendy Opt-In Form
If you’re seeing this, I’d say you liked it enough to read the whole thing, right?

So why not subscribe to get future stories you’ll also like sent straight to your inbox?

Recommended Reading