Palmer Cox, the Brownie Craze,
and the Brownie Camera - March 21, 2007

Wayne Morgan

Wayne Morgan

This material on this page is based on a slideshow and talk presented by Wayne Morgan. In turn, the slide show and talk were based upon the lengthy research and writings of Mr. Morgan.

The talk has a different perspective from our usual photography oriented material. Morgan's presentation paints the social culture of the time when Kodak introduced its famous Brownie camera line which for a few years used its namesake little Brownies to foster popularity with children everywhere.

- Bob Carter
Wayne Morgan

Introduction. Wayne Morgan is interested in the popular culture of the 19th and 20th centuries (he did the first study of pinball games in the 1970s). He has been both an art curator and operator of an art gallery and is an acknowledged expert on Palmer Cox and the Brownies phenomenon, Morgan's talk tonight is an edited version of one he gave at George Eastman House in 2000 for the 100th anniversary of the Brownie camera. To augment his slide presentation, Morgan brought a number of pieces of Brownie memorabilia including a couple of Brownie cameras with the very rare original boxes. 

Morgan cautions that the Brownie collecting community is vertical, not horizontal, divided into book, doll, camera, china, paper and art collectors. The broad interest is mostly in the Brownie art. There are many children's book collectors chasing the Brownies books - some of which are quite rare. And there are "tons" of china items available, some quite ugly. Many of the books and art pieces are in public hands, but little has been done to sort out what is authentic and what is not. In the 1980s Morgan was attracted by a small table cloth he spotted while browsing some old odds and ends and bought it for $50. It turned out to be a rare and valuable piece of Brownie history. He noted "some times ephemera are the  rarest of  collectibles".    

Morgan first learned of Palmer Cox when he received a news release in the late 1970s from the National Gallery announcing an exhibit of Palmer Cox drawings. This prompted research that brought out the story of Palmer Cox and his Brownies. An opportunity to present the story in 1990 succumbed to budget cuts. Tracing the history of Cox and his accomplishments has taken a lot of time and effort. For example, Morgan has been working on the story of Cox's musical since 1991. With no paper trail, he had to piece together three of the four years the play was performed by tracing the locations from newspaper stories. He often uses eBay as a research tool augmenting visits to holdings throughout the States and Canada. 

Serendipity helped. Morgan was researching Myra Whitney who created some Brownie dolls and noted a comment about a descendent becoming an astronomer. The descendent turned out to be Charles Whitney, author of an astronomy book in Morgan's library. He called the author and discovered Whitney had completed a family history which helped to fill out another aspect of the Palmer Cox story.  

Morgan's extensive work on Palmer Cox led him down many different avenues of social history including the Brownie cameras and the beginnings of author rights. With his understanding of late 19th century social history, it was easy for him to see why George Eastman and the Kodak guys chose "Brownie" as the name for their new children's camera.

Brownie cloth
Brownie products
Brownie Cup
Brownie glassware
Palmer Cox

Palmer Cox. Palmer Cox was born in 1840 near the Scottish settlement of Granby Quebec. Like many others, he left for the States after his school years to seek fame and fortune, returning to his Granby home in the last years of his life.

 He accomplished an amazing number of firsts in his career including the idea of licensing his creative work (1885). His characters were used for dolls (1890), toys (1891) and games (1892). His characters where the first used for brand products. For example, Brownie biscuits, sold by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) preceded animal crackers. An Ivory Soap ad was the first use of an author's characters in advertising. He was the first North American author to write a successful musical based on his characters. And of course he is the grandfather of the comics.

 Beginning in the late 1850s he worked at a variety of jobs, ending up in San Francisco building railway cars in 1863. While in California he joined the militia and became an American citizen. After attending art school in his spare time, he published his first book as a subscription series in 1874.  The following year he moved to New York City to be an illustrator and writer of books of anecdotal humour, an advertising artist and a cartoonist.

 Cox switched to the lucrative children's market in 1879 at the suggestion of his engraver. He created his Brownies characters and stories a few years later when in his 40s and became the first author to be a rage. Cox was determined to protect himself from exploitation by others and became the first author/illustrator to protect the use of his characters in other forms.

 Cox never lost his optimism. After many successful years in New York City, he divided his time between Granby (summer) and Long Island NY (winter). In 1905, he completed his famous "Scottish castle" in Granby Quebec. It's still standing - Brownie weather vane, Brownie flag and all. Cox died in 1924 and is buried in Granby.

Log Cabin Brownie biscuit tin
Palmer Cox and Brownie Castle, Granby Quebec
First Ivory soap ad featuring the Brownies
A political cartoon by Palmer Cox
Palmer Cox monument in Granby Quebec

The Brownies. Cox established a  reputation for funny animals and verse used in children's books and commercial advertisements alike. In 1883 the leading children's magazine "St Nicholas" introduced his Brownies - and the key to his fame and fortune. In his first Brownies story, "The Brownies' Ride", his Brownies borrow a farmer's mare to go for a ride and return it unharmed before sunrise. Children responded enthusiastically and over next 30 years many more stories in "St Nicholas" gave Cox and the Brownies world-wide fame. Cox also wrote thirteen Brownies books, the first one being the 1887 title "Brownies - Their Book". The Brownies stories are meant to be read aloud. There are many characters in each picture and children can follow their favourites. 

In all Brownies stories, the characters show "a child-like curiosity and sense of fun; the democratic comradeship of a leaderless band in a parentless world; and investigation of the contemporary world and its mastery through some sort of technology". The Brownies show creativity, skill and hard work - there is no pain or crime in their stories. 

Cox's Brownies are all male and contemporary compared to the heroes of other children's books which came from England and were written a half century earlier. His Brownies are not to be confused with the Brownies of Gloria Ewing's stories which were the basis for the name of the famous Brownies girls group. "Brownies" are endemic throughout society in one form or another and not all are the mischievous little men of Cox's imagination. His Brownies are nameless, but drawn to represent many professions and nationalities - amazing that they were accepted in a time of strong opposition to foreigners outside of  popular culture. The Brownie characters had adult connotations. For example Brownie "400" refers to the  400 - New York's hereditary elite. "Policeman" is based on a famous New York cop, ditto "Jockey". On one level the stories are children's tales, on another there are many references and hidden messages meaningful only to adults. 

Cox developed his Brownies from traditional highland Scottish stories told him by his mother. The Brownies are members of the fairy world whose principle attribute is helping with chores while the family sleeps. Cox added the lowland attribute of a wandering group. His creations  retain the tradition of helping humans, but he has added adventures exploring contemporary activities like roller skating, playing tennis, hot air ballooning, travel, and photography (an 1891 Christmas tree sketch includes a camera ornament - almost a decade before the Brownie camera).

Palmer Cox's success with the Brownie stories was due partly to timing. When he first published the Brownies, attitudes to children's literature and education were changing.Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of the popular "St Nicholas" magazine for children saw this change in attitudes and signed up Palmer Cox and his stories that mixed fantasy, humour and contemporary activities. In the late 1880s Cox was so busy with his Brownies he was turning away advertising work. Subsequent books improved with more drawings, not just panel drawings.

drawing from The Brownies Ride story
The Brownies - Their Book The Brownies at Home
The Brownie Year Book
example of Brownies
drawing from The Brownies at Home
Brownie doll by Mira Whitney

Copyright and Licensing. Cox was a bridge between 19th century attitudes on licensing and the modern age in his efforts to protect his work. Today, licences often bring in the most profit. 

Mira Whitney was looking for a replacement for her Owl Christmas ornaments when the first Brownies book came out. The popularity of the Brownies inspired her to create Brownie dolls and the following year they went on sale in Buffalo NY at the "Peter Paul and Brothers" booksellers. The small dolls were simple looking and had wire movable arms. They were popular even before their April 1 1890 patent date. Whitney made then well into the time of the Great War, earning enough money put a son through Cornell university.   

Ms. Whitney requested permission to use Palmer's work for her dolls. This was the first time a manufacturer asked permission to use an author's work - a step in the direction of licensing creative assets, a concept that Cox formulized a short time later as the  popularity of his Brownies exploded. Cox took advantage of the interest in his Brownies by advertisers and manufacturers in what we would refer to today as a merchandising plan. 

Not all manufactures were as honest. In the late 1880s porcelain Brownie dolls were being made in Germany and imported into the USA - likely commissioned by American distributors. By 1891 the copyright laws had been reviewed and the USA signed the International Copyright law giving a bit more protection to artists. The McLaughlin Bros., game and block makers, produced the Brownie blocks under Palmer Cox's 1891 copyright. This was the first time toys and games were made with an author's direct involvement and to his profit.

After three decades with "St Nicholas", Cox left to write two pages of stories a month for the Ladies Home Journal, an association which lasts four years. He published two books based on these stories. The LHJ had a seasonal emphasis. In the stories, the Brownies travelled across  USA and around the world. The Brownies visit Canada and in one drawing they approach the Bank of Montreal building at Yonge and Front Street in Toronto (today the home of the Hockey Hall of Fame). 

In spite of the copyright laws, fake Brownies appear in ads and the pressure is on Palmer Cox  to take steps to protect his work. Cotton fabric was printed with Brownie dolls to be cut out at home and filled with bran. The popular fabric, sold by the yard in 1892, is easy to find  today (it was even used as a premium in some magazines). The dolls added colour since the books of the day were usually black and white, except for cover art-work. A musical extravaganza was performed in the years 1894-1898 with Cox advising on costumes, and sets. It played in major cities including Toronto (twice) and Montreal. The Globe newspaper in Toronto published an election cartoon which was a take-off on the musical's poster. 

Across the 1890s the Brownies were white hot - in books, magazines, toys, games, dolls, on stage, etc. Brownie books are published simultaneously in the USA, England, and France and Cox exercises as much control as possible over his work. Mimicking the syndication of news stories, he created a booklet called "Little Grains for Little People" which he sold to two different companies - cotton threads, and chocolates, setting stage for licensing products. 

Brownie drawings were lifted by Russians to illustrate their own stories - they may have noticed many companies were still using Brownies without being sued (Cox registered his drawings, but not the Brownie name). Cox tended to ignore lower cost items illegally using his Brownies and may have felt it wasn't worth suing over such low value items. He didn't get into legal battles like R. F. Outcault, author of the "yellow kid" comics. Cox was so famous with his Brownies that the early yellow kid series had a cartoon showing a boy being painted like the actors in the Brownies musical on 14th St.

Palmer Cox in his office
Brownie drawing
Brownie Blocks by McLaughlin Bros
example of fancy typography and page drawings
Brownie visit to Toronto (Bank of Montreal)
Brownie segmented blocks toy
Toronto Globe editorial cartoon
Brownie boating drawing
little Grains for Little People ad
printed cotton fabric of Brownie doll cutouts
Russian book using unlicenced Brownie drawings
yellow Kid cartoon on copyright and the Brownies musical

Advertisements. In 1888 the US Type Foundry offered over 100 electrotypes of Brownie figures to the printing industry. Many imitation Brownies appeared in ads - including non-Kodak camera ads.

Harley Proctor of P&G hired Cox to do an Ivory soap ad - both the illustration and verse. His drawings tie his advertising work to his children's stories. And a rarity in advertising, Cox signed his advertisements. 

The world of commerce and advertising was attracted to the broadly recognized Brownies for two reasons: First, brands took time win trust as national advertising was viewed with hostility and secondly, the market place was crowded. When P&G decided to use Brownies to advertise Ivory soap in 1883, there were three hundred other soaps in the market.  Associating Brownies with a product made it seem harmless, warm, and friendly. 

Some companies took on the new world of commerce and advertising in a contemporary way. Each had a visionary CEO or other senior manager. Two of the four largest national American advertisers in the 1880s, Ivory and Supilio (scrubbing bars), used the Brownies. Many small companies, like Ponds and ONT threads, also made use of the talents of Palmer Cox.

A Brownie camera ad by a Kodak competitor
Schoenhut Brownie figure three feet high

Kodak. Lewis B Jones was one of these visionaries. Hired by Eastman Kodak, he expanded their advertising and by 1890, at $750,000, it was the largest advertising budget of the time. Jones was  practical and shrewd with a flair for light verse. A gregarious person, he strongly believed photography was related to the arts and that advertising was worthy of creative people. 

While the Brownies were aimed at young children, fondness for the little imps carried into adulthood as seen by the popularity of adult size Brownie costumes, Brownie photo albums, silver picture frames, rulers, and a wide variety of other popular items. For the first five years, advertising for the new Kodak Brownie camera featured the little characters created by Cox. 

For many years it was believed that the Brownie camera was named after it's maker, Frank Brownell - another Canadian. The cameras were sold by Kodak, but made "next door" at Brownell's manufacturing company - Camera Works which Eastman bought out in 1902. Brownell was from Vienna, Ontario a little hamlet south east of London, Ontario near the shores of Lake Erie. After finishing school he moved to the States. The genius of the Brownie camera was in its calculated "averageness" - it needed average light, operated at average speed, had no adjustments,  and the Brownie formula of f/14 at 1/50 sec could be relied upon to give good results most of time. At a cost of one dollar (and fifteen cents for a roll of film), the camera democratized photography like the Brownies democratized childhood - what better match of name and product? 

The fact that other camera companies flaunted their use of the Brownies without attracting litigation may have given Kodak the idea that it too could use them in ads without risk of litigation or need to pay fees. The Brownie camera hit the market in February, 1900. In June of that year patents associated with the camera were registered under Brownell's name. The first order from Kodak for 5,000 cameras was barely delivered when reorders poured in.   1,000 quickly followed by 10,000 and on August 23, 20,000 (see Eaton Lothrop's article on the Brownie camera).  Kodak waited until the summer of 1900 to place national magazine ads for the Brownie camera. Once started, a growing number of ad pages appeared across the big American magazines. Only three or four of the magazines were directed to children since it was Aunts and Uncles who gave children cameras as gifts. 

Some Kodak dealers initially discounted the Brownie cameras as beneath them, but when the ads took effect and they had to frequently reorder, they came into line. Window displays included Brownie dolls like the three foot high ones made by Schoenhut. And unauthorized dolls could be found everywhere. A 1902 marketing message from Kodak to its dealers suggested "We supply the seed (Brownie products). Plant the Brownie acorn and the Kodak oak will grow" (tall oaks from little acorns grow). This was a reminder that sales of the low cost and simple Brownies would lead to film sales and customers for the more expensive and featured Kodak cameras. 

It was ironic that Eastman Kodak, a company keen and aggressive in protecting its copyrights and patents, was comfortable using the Palmer Cox Brownies without acknowledgement or payment. Like many other companies, Kodak fought the trend to use its trademark in a generic sense (it was common to use the term "Kodak" to mean any camera - even in the 1950/60s I met older Quebecers who called my Exakta my "Kodak").  By 1905 Kodak was ready to drop the use of the Brownies and the famous characters disappeared from the Brownie camera and its marketing to be replaced by the Brownie Boy - a takeoff on Buster Brown who appeared the same year. Kodak marketed dozens of models of Brownie cameras into the 1960s.

Eastman Kodak Brownie ad
famous ad for the Brownie camera
Camera store Brownie window display
Brownie No. 2 camera and box
Brownie camera No. 2a and box

capturing Wayne Morgan - photographer perspective capturing Wayne Morgan - speaker perspective and the final portrait - post Photoshop

The links, book and article noted below provide additional information on Palmer Cox, the Brownies, and the landmark Brownie camera.

Bob Lansdale captures Wayne Morgan's likeness
with Wayne Gilbert on lighting and George
Dunbar assisting. Result is at the right >>>


George Eastman: A Biography. Elizabeth Brayer. University of Rochester Press, Rochester NY 2006.
Reprint of John Hopkins University Press 1996 edition. 

The Brownie Camera.  Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr.
History of Photography V2-1, January 1978, Taylor & Francis, publisher.
(Note: I haven't been able to access the above link) 

University of California, Riverside. California Museum of Photography 

Brownie Dolls and the world of Palmer Cox 

James Dalton Collection of Palmer Cox and Brownies Stuff 

Brownie Points - corrections to Phyllis Buchanan's Palmer Cox material 

Palmer Cox, The Brownies 

Palmer Cox Creator of the Brownies 


Olivier, M. (Marc)
George Eastman's Modern Stone-Age Family: Snapshot Photography and the Brownie
Technology and Culture - Volume 48, Number 1, January 2007, pp. 1-19

Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY 

McGill University, Montreal - Library and Collections 

The Brownie Camera page 

The Brownie Camera at 100 (February 2000) 

Brownie Camera Collector

Unless other wise noted, images on this page were taken with a Sony F828 digital still camera off the projection screen and subsequently adjusted in Photoshop CS2 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V1. Contents and most images are ©2007 Wayne Morgan and may not be used without his permission. Any PHSC images may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Contact PHSC at if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Click on most of the small images to see a larger version in a separate window.

Bob Carter

Back to Past Programs

return to the home page
Main Index
Facelift & Design © 1999 Zero Cattle
Page © 2007 by The Photographic Historical Society of Canada
Webmaster: Bob Carter
-- See What's New for more details

Lost?   Find your way with our Site Map!