Universal  –  Vintage Camera Brand

Universal Brand Overview

Universal logo

Founded: 1933 — New York City, NY, USA
Currently: defunct

Universal Brand History

Universal (also commonly known as Univex) was an American brand founded in 1932 as the Universal Camera Corporation by Otto W. Githens and Jacob J. Shapiro. Neither Githens (who was in finance) nor Shapiro (a taxi insurance agent) had any background or experience in the photo industry when they established Universal in Midtown Manhattan but they went ahead anyway and ended up creating one of the most successful camera companies of the time.

Like true businessmen, Shapiro and Githens approached the industry with a “razor and blades” model, selling inexpensive cameras which used proprietary film. The company’s first camera, introduced in October 1933, was the Univex Model A, priced at a very affordable 39 cents (a little over $7 in today’s money), which was designed to be used with Univex #00 film, priced at just ten cents (a little under $2 in today’s money) per six exposure roll. To a penny-pinching American public in the midst of the Great Depression, the prices were irresistible and nearly three million Model A cameras were sold by the end of 1934 with 22 million rolls of Univex #00 film sold by 1938.

As Universal dominated the low-end market, it began looking for a way to add serious amateurs to their customer base. Many amateurs in the US at the time were shying away from superior (but expensive) German cameras made by manufacturers such as Leica and Zeiss Ikon in favor of cheaper American-made models like the Kodak 35 and the Argus C so Universal debuted the extraordinary Univex Mercury CC which, at just $25 (about $425 today), was significantly cheaper than any of them. Even at its impressively low price point, the Mercury was surprisingly advanced, being the first ever camera to feature a hot shoe and having a blistering maximum shutter speed of 1/1000.

The company’s fortunes took a downturn as the Second World War erupted in Europe, resulting in a severe film shortage as their supplier—Belgian firm Gevaert—suspended operations in the face of German invasion. Universal scrambled to meet demand as Gevaert hastily set up a factory in Massachusetts but the damage had already been done as consumers began abandoning Univex films (and the accompanying cameras) for Kodak‘s increasingly ubiquitous (and now standard) 35mm film cassette. Then, as the United States suddenly entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Universal was awarded a government contract to produce binoculars and other military optics, effectively giving the floundering company a second chance.

By the time Universal reconverted back to civilian manufacturing after the war, the company’s government contract to manufacture binoculars had gained it both a healthy profit as well as considerable experience in producing optics. Universal put both assets to work and began resurrecting pre-war models, now equipped with their own in-house lenses and able to take standard film formats. The new Mercury (now dubbed the Univex Mercury II) now accepted standard 35mm film cartridges and came with Universal-designed lenses but also a new hefty price tag. The Mercury II started at $65 ($800 today) when it was introduced but by December 1946, the price had inexplicably skyrocketed to an astonishing $82.90 (over $1,000 in today’s money), driving customers away by the thousands and playing a crucial role in Universal’s eventual downfall.

Demand had all but disappeared by the early 1950s as Universal’s offerings lagged behind the competition. Unable to stay afloat, the company declared bankruptcy on April 16, 1952. The company’s brand names, trademarks, patents, and remaining property were purchased by Henry and Robert Werblow who succeeded in restarting the company in western Massachusetts but then walked away from the firm a year later. The newly resurrected company struggled at the hands of emerging Japanese powerhouses like Nikon and Canon as well as already established German firms like Leica and Zeiss Ikon until production and sales all but stopped. After years of minimal activity, the Universal Camera Corporation ceased to exist in 1964.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of Universal 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 645-648.

Repinski, Cynthia A. The Univex Story. (Grantsburg, WI, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 1991), p 9-19, 61-67, 99-106, 170-180, 225-236.

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