Polaroid  –  Vintage Camera Brand

Polaroid Brand Overview

Polaroid logo

Founded: 1932 — Cambridge, MA, USA
Currently: Polaroid Corporation

Polaroid Brand History

Polaroid is an American brand founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Edwin H. Land and his Harvard University physics professor George Wheelwright in 1932. Over the years, Polaroid established a photographic empire that still makes its name synonymous with instant cameras and instant film today.

Having studied chemistry for only one year, Edwin Land left Harvard University for New York City where he developed a revolutionary polarizing filter that was not only effective but also inexpensive. Afterward, he returned to Harvard to continue his studies but then left again to establish Land-Wheelwright Laboratories in 1932 in order to commercialize his polarizing filter (primarily for use in sunglasses). In 1937, the company changed its name to the Polaroid Corporation as it looked for further uses for its primary product. As World War II erupted in Europe, Polaroid began working with the US military producing equipment like special camouflage-revealing goggles and targeting systems for bombers.

In 1943 while vacationing with his family, Edwin Land began exploring the possibility of instant cameras after his three year-old daughter asks him why she can’t see photographs immediately after they are taken. A few years later in 1947, Land demonstrated instant photography during a meeting held by the Optical Society of America. By November 1948, Polaroid debuted the world’s very first instant camera: the Model 95. Over the next few decades, Polaroid produced millions of different instant cameras with notable models including the fully automatic 100-400 series, the groundbreaking SX-70 folding SLR, the ungainly Big Shot, the compact Spectra (which was also sold as the Minolta Instant Pro), and the ubiquitous OneStep/Pronto! which became one of the best-selling cameras of any type in the United States. Along with consumer models, Polaroid also produced instant products for commercial applications like passport photo cameras and macro cameras for medical and dental work.

Polaroid faced its first real competition in the instant photography market in 1976 when Kodak–which had actually helped Polaroid with manufacturing film–debuted its own type of instant film. Land responded immediately and filed a lawsuit against Kodak. In early 1986, the court ruled in favor of Polaroid and ordered Kodak to exit the market but it wasn’t until 1991 that damages to the tune of $925 million (about $1.7 billion today) were awarded to Polaroid.

In 1977, Polaroid attempted to revolutionize home movies with its Polavision instant movie camera system. However, because Polavision film could not record sound and could only be played on proprietary Polavision viewers that produced dark, murky images, it was unpopular and sold poorly. The competition from cassette tape formats like Betamax and VHS also sealed Polavision’s fate as a cataclysmic commercial failure which cost the company over $250 million in today’s money. The fallout was so vast, in fact, that Edwin Land was forced to resign from the company that he had founded.

The departure of Land following the Polavision debacle is seen by many to be the beginning of the end for Polaroid. Instant cameras were falling out of fashion with the masses, forcing Polaroid to revamp its market strategies which resulted in factory closures and thousands of layoffs. With the advent of disposable cameras, cheap one-hour 35mm film processing, and eventually digital cameras, the cost-per-image for photography plummeted, making comparatively expensive instant film an increasingly unattractive choice. Polaroid struggled to adapt to a changing market, laying off even more workers and shifting manufacturing to China. After a long series of ultimately doomed products, Polaroid finally filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

After several years of licensing its brand to other companies, Polaroid was purchased by Petters Group Worldwide. However, the Minnesota-based firm was nothing more than a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme and following an investigation by the FBI (which resulted in 50 year prison sentence for the firm’s CEO), Polaroid announced that it would no longer manufacture instant film and declared bankruptcy once more in 2008.

After Polaroid instant film production stopped, a multinational company called The Impossible Project purchased production machinery and leased a former Polaroid factory in Enschede, Netherlands to continue manufacturing Polaroid instant films and other related products. Meanwhile, Polaroid was again auctioned off in 2009, this time to Toronto-based Hilco Consumer Capital LP and Boston-based Gordon Brothers Brands LLC. Polaroid entered into a licensing agreement with Summit Global Group to sell Polaroid-branded digital cameras and other photographic products. This led to a revival of sorts for Polaroid as it desperately fought to become relevant again, even going so far as to name eccentric recording artist Lady Gaga as its creative director in 2010, a somewhat questionable arrangement that unceremoniously fell apart in 2014. In May 2017, Polaroid was acquired by the group behind the Impossible Project (which renamed itself Polaroid Originals). They now sell film, refurbished vintage Polaroid cameras as well as the brand new Polaroid OneStep 2 camera.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of Polaroid cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, WI, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), p 542-546.

“History,” Polaroid Corporation, http://polaroid.com/history

“Polaroid Is Suing Kodak, Charges Patent Violation,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/04/28/archives/polaroid-is-suing-kodak-charges-patent-violation-polaroid-is-suing.html

“Polaroid versus Kodak: The Battle for Instant Photography,” Ryerson University, https://library.ryerson.ca/asc/2013/08/kodak-versus-polaroid-the-battle-for-instant-photography-2/

“1,000 FACE LAYOFF AT POLAROID,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/07/business/1000-face-layoff-at-polaroid.html

“Polaroid to lay off 2,000 employees,” Digital Photography Review, http://www.dpreview.com/articles/2538614125/polaroidcutjobs

“Former Polaroid owner Tom Petters jailed for 50 years for Ponzi fraud,” Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?sid=afOdWSvgMXtM&pid=newsarchive

“Polaroid in Bankruptcy Again, Cites Petters Charges,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/7570263/Former-Polaroid-owner-Tom-Petters-jailed-for-50-years-for-Ponzi-fraud.html

“In Focus: The Impossible Project,” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/in-focus-the-impossible-project

“Hilco / Gordon Brothers acquires Polaroid brand, assets and dignity,” Engadget, https://www.engadget.com/2009/04/17/hilco-gordon-brothers-acquires-polaroid-brand-assets-and-dign/

“Polaroid Brand Announces Partnership with the Summit Global Group of Companies,” Gordon Brothers Group, http://www.gordonbrothers.com/news-room/press-releases-2006—2011/2009-06-17

“Lady Gaga to become Polaroid’s creative director,” The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/jan/08/lady-gaga-polaroid-creative-director

“Polaroid splits with creative director Lady Gaga,” PR Week, http://www.prweek.com/article/1315548/polaroid-splits-creative-director-lady-gaga

“Polaroid Acquired by New Ownership Group,” Polaroid, https://www.polaroid.com/news/polaroid-acquired-by-new-ownership-group

“Polaroid Corporation,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polaroid_Corporation

“Polavision,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polavision

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