American Optical Company, Scovill Mfg. Co.

The 76 Camera Variation 2 (Wet Plate Version)


The Pocket Camera (~1875-~1882)
76 Camera (refers only to size #203)(1876-~1896)
American Optical Co.'s Apparatus Outfits (#201-204)(~1882-1886)

Centennial Outfits (#201-204)(1887-~1896)



5 x 8

front of camera label

back of camera stamp

black stains from wet plate chemical


Manufacturer: American Optical Co. New York, NY factory
Date Introduced:
- ; Years Manufactured:  c. 1876 - 1882
Construction: rear focus via rack and pinion (single gear track on top of middle base rail); single swing; reversing by two tripod mounts; three-piece, shifting lens board
Materials: mahogany body, French polish; cherry base; black rubberized fabric bellows; brass hardware, draw-file finish
Sizes Offered: at least 5x8


     The 76 Camera (whichever name is used) is basically a Scovill or American Optical model view camera that has rack and pinion rear focus, non-tapering bellows and made from a French polished mahogany.  Specific characteristics of the model and of variations are given below.

     Above is illustrated The 76 Camera Variation 2 (Wet-Plate Version) 5x8" example.


     This long-lived model appears to have been referred to by a bewildering assortment of names, depending on when and where advertised.  Adding to the problem is that apparently one size (the 5x8) was given a special name (
The 76 Camera).  The model numbers, No.s 201-205, appear to have been more stable over time.
     The earliest name applied appears to be
The Pocket Camera (see e.g.,
Photographic Times 5, July 1875, p. 168-169).
     By 1882, the name The Pocket Camera was dropped, in favor of the name American Optical's Apparatus Outfits No.s 201-204.  In 1876, the centennial year of the United States, the 5x8" size of the Apparatus Outfits series, No. 203, was given, in an apparent fit of patriotic spirit, a special name: The 76 Camera (see e.g., Scovill's Photo. Series No. 20, Dry Plate Making for Amateurs, 1886, p. a11).
     By about 1887, the name American Optical's Apparatus Outfits No.s 201-204 was dropped in favor of the name Centennial Outfits No.s 201-204 (see e.g., How to Make Photographs and Descriptive Price List, June 1890, p. 23).  The special name, The 76 Camera (still only the No. 203 size), seems to have given rise to the Centennial Outfit name in that centennial of the United States was in 1876.
     Even more confusing,
The Centennial Outfits were used as a basis for what are called Instantaneous Outfits, reflecting the development of faster photographic emulsions that required the use of shutters rather than the lens cap for exposure (see e.g., How to Make Photographs and Descriptive Price List, Scovill Mfg. Co. (New York, NY), distributed by Andrew J. Smith (Providence, RI), 1886, p. 52):
        No.401 = Outfit No.202, Peerless lens, wooden drop shutter
No.402 = Outfit No.202, #1 Darlot Rapid Hemispherical lens, wooden drop shutter
No.403 = Outfit No.202, Morrison's Celebrated B Group lens, metal drop shutter
No.404 = Outfit No.203, #2 Darlot Rapid Hemispherical lens, wooden drop shutter
No.405 = Outfit No.203, Morrison's Celebrated B Group lens, metal drop shutter
     Yet more confusing still, the Instantaneous Outfits of 1888 abandoned the No.s 201-204 numbering system, as well as all sense.  The 76 Camera (with added shutter to make it instantaneous) was offered as the No.1 1888 Instantaneous Outfit, the No.2 1888 Instantaneous Outfit featured The Petite Camera (plus shutter), and the No.3 1888 Instantaneous Outfit featured The Mignon Camera (plus shutter).  The 76 Camera is still its 5x8 self, but note that the Petite Camera and the Mignon Camera are both 3¼x4¼", but different quality and prices.  The 1888 Instantaneous Outfits seem to be a hodgepodge.

Construction Common to All 76/Centennial Variations: 
1)  It is back focus only , and has non-tapering bellows, which results in the front standard being approximately the same size as the rear standard.
2)  The platform has a single rack inlet down the middle of the platform for rack and pinion focus.  The edges of the platform have "brass guides", sheet brass installed to project slightly over the edge of the platform.  The rear standard, in turn, has a metal undercarriage with a slot in which the guide moves as the camera is focused.  The guides are a necessary part of a camera having a single, middle rack and pinion; without them, the focus is hopelessly wobbly.  An exception is
Variation 2, which has a push-pull focus and no brass guides.  Variation 2 is thought to represent an early version of The 76 Camera.
3)  The front standard: is a box-jointed square, mounted on a ~1/4 bottom plate, the whole screwed to the front of the main platform; an ~1/4" thick facing holds the rise mechanism and the lens board.  On the bottom of the front standard, there is a quarter-round trim linking the vertical standard to the horizontal platform.  The front standard adjusts up or down, held in place by a male knurled thumbscrew.
4)  The rear standard: is a box-jointed square, which screwed to a frame.  Even though the frame is the same thickness as is the bottom plate of the front standard, the rear box has to be slightly smaller than that of the front standard, since the rear standard frame rides slightly above the platform on its rack and pinion gear system.  A second and separate box-jointed square in the rear standard is hinged on the bottom.  It tilts backwards to provide a single swing for the camera.  The amount of swing is controlled at the top by a thumbscrew and slotted piece of hardware which doubles as a latch for the hinged ground glass frame.
5)  The folding platform or bed is hinged, and made rigid by either a thumbscrew (pre-1886) or a rod and piston device (patented by Mathias Flammang Oct. 20, 1885).
6)  The bellows on early examples are fabric coated with a black rubberized paint, red Russian leather (a later example).
7)  The ground glass frame hinges down, and is latched up using a spring-loaded clip which has the same shape and design for all variations.
8)  The lens board consists of a three-piece base on top of which is a shifting three-piece section.  An exception is
Variation 3, which has a simple non-shifting lens board.  This camera is thought to be an inexpensive Scovill version of The 76 Camera, and therefore fitted with a less expensive non-shifting lens board.  The camera was normally sold without lens, assuming perhaps that a photographer would want to choose their own type and brand of lens.  Additionally, lenses of view cameras were hardly permanent, and it is common to find a camera with a replacement lens board and/or a different lens, even one made by a competitor.


There are three variations , two of which are marked as products of American Optical Co., and one of which appears to be a Scovill version of the American Optical product.  This American Optical vs. Scovill version dichotomy also occurs amongst camera variations known as Waterbury Cameras.  See Waterbury Camera Variation 1 for the details as well as links to all the Waterbury variations.


The 76 Camera Variation 1

The 76 Camera Variation 1 is the archetype 76 Camera, in that it most 76 Cameras extant seem to be this variation, and that this variation matches the engravings and descriptions in catalogs most closely.  But this is advertising in the 19th century, and engravings often don't match the actual camera model in detail.

     Considering this, if the written description of a model differs from an engraving of the model, the written description should be considered to be the more accurate.  Given this, the written description of The 76 Camera has the following:  mahogany, polished finish, folding bellows and body, single swing, hinged bed, and brass guides.  The engravings show a shifting lens board - something worth mentioning in the written description, one would think. The engravings also show a push-pull focus  The presence or absence of rack and pinion focus is not in the written description, although one engraving (from the viewpoint of the back right side) suggests a rack and pinion in that it shows a large thumbscrew that corresponds to the thumbscrew for rack and pinion focus on the example cameras.  However, the same engraving clearly illustrates a push-pull focus.  This discrepancy was never corrected, despite appearing in advertising for almost two decades.

     The actual camera differs from the engravings only on the above last point of type of focus,  The vast majority of example 76 Cameras observed so far are rack and pinion focus (push-pull versions must be very rare, as they are so far unique examples having no peers.  Given that the brass guides are required for a single track rack and pinion to function adequately (and expensive enough to not appear on any but the most expensive field cameras), and the lack of American Optical manufactured examples, I am of the opinion that rack and pinion focus is part of The 76 Camera archetype.  The focus is secured by a thumbscrew that is underneath the large thumbscrew, and is only visible on the photo taken of the 5x8" example from the right side.  The 4x5 example has no such thumbscrew, and has to rely on the resistance of moving the rack and pinion to not change focus while inserting or removing the plate holder, a system which probably did not function well.

     The wood appears to be naturally dark, Cuban mahogany, of a rather plain, straight grain figure.  The hardware has the draw-file finish, and screw heads are aligned, as can be seen from the eight screws in the Flammang patented rod and piston device on the 4x5 example above, in which five are aligned and the other three probably have been unscrewed at some point and put back in mixed up order.  In summary, the camera is just what is to be expected of an American Optical manufactured product; the corroborating label and stamping are merely icing on the identification cake.

     Variation 1 has a stamped assembly number on the rear of the platform.


The 76 Camera Variation 2 (Wet Plate Version)

     The 76 Camera Variation 2 differs from the archetype Variation 1 by possessing the push-pull focus rather than rack and pinion discussed above.  This type is very rare, though, and so is not considered the archetype 76 Camera.  It has to be earlier than Variation 1, as it is a wet-plate camera.  The first description of The 76 Camera, in 1876, states that the camera had a fine-focus screw - a piece of hardware that combines one thumbscrew for firmly setting the rear standard at one spot, and another thumbscrew that allows fine-focusing (see American Optical View Camera Boxes No. 1 (view from the right and behind).  Therefore, Variation 2 is intermediate to the fine-focus screw 76 Camera and the rack and pinion focus 76 Camera Variation 1.  It is no wonder that the engravings don't quite know what type of focus to illustrate: there were three types of focus made very close in time to one other.

     The push-pull focus on this variation is secured by a lever on the back of the rear standard.  When rotated in the clockwise direction until pointed straight back, the rear standard moves freely.  The lever can be used as a handy item to pull on to achieve the desired focus.  When rotated further clockwise, the lever binds tightly to prevent the focus from moving when the plate holder is inserted or removed. 

     It does not appear to have a stamped assembly or serial number.

     The camera is indeed from the 1876-1881 wet plate era, as shown by the last photo above, taken of the surface directly below where the plate holder sits during an exposure.  Black stains, undoubtedly stains from the silver-halide-containing collodion, are visible - just where they commonly are found on cameras in which the wet-plate process was used.  Assuming that the earliest 76 Cameras had fine-focus screws as described, this camera is mostly likely from about 1878-1881.


The 76 Camera Variation 3 (Scovill Version)

     A third variation exists that shows almost all of the characteristics common to 76 Cameras, yet is distinct from Variation 1 and Variation 2.

     This variation matches Variation 1 in that:  its construction is the same, its wood is French polished, its hardware is draw-filed, the screws on the front (the only place where two or more are next to one another) are aligned, it has a single track in the middle of the platform for rack and pinion focus, it has a small thumbscrew under the large focusing thumbscrew whose purpose is to clamp the large thumbscrew (and thus the focus) securely in place.

     It differs from Variation 1 in three ways:

1)  Its wood is a light-colored mahogany, that is very unlike the dark, Cuban mahogany that normally is found in American Optical products.  It is more like the wood found in Scovill products, such as the Waterbury View Camera Variation 1.  It probably is Honduras mahogany, a type of wood still available today from tree farms.

2)  The lens board is a simple three-piece type that does not shift, rather than the shifting lens board found on Variation 1.

3)  It has a ground-glass frame that is considerably larger than that of either Variation 1 or Variation 2.  Hence the entire camera is also considerably larger.  A comparison of the sizes is shown below.  This discrepancy in size between those cameras thought to have been made in the American Optical factory and those cameras thought to have been made in the Scovill New Haven factory is similar to the discrepancy found for the variations of the Waterbury View (see Waterbury View Variation 1 for comparison photos).  The difference in construction may be due to Scovill not precisely duplicating the tools and jigs used to make the camera in one factory vs. the other.  The company may have merely left the details of construction to the tool- or camera-makers from each location.  It is not that Scovill cameras are always larger than American Optical cameras; in the Waterbury example just mentioned, the American Optical Waterbury Variation 1 is larger than all the Scovill Variations.

4)  It has no American Optical label or stampings.  Instead, it has a stamp on the lens board and a stamp in the rear of the platform that read: "Scovill Mfg. Co., N.Y."

     Variation 3 has a stamped assembly number on the lens board, front standard, front of platform, and also at the rear of the platform.

     Because of its wood and Scovill stampings, The 76 Camera Variation 3 is thought to have been made by Scovill, most likely in its New Haven factory.  This is despite the American Optical quality wood and hardware finish.  If so, the workers at the New Haven factory knew how to finish a camera in high style when they wanted to.

     Above are examples of a 4x5" example and a 5x8" example.  Note the slight variation in hardware to raise or lower the lens board.  The 5x8" example was probably made prior to 1886, since it lacks the patented rod and piston device to make the platform rigid.  The 4x5 example was made in 1886 or later.  It has the patented rod and piston device; it also has red leather bellows, and a slightly different piece of hardware to raise or lower the lens board.


Comparison of the size of The 76 Camera Variation 1 to The 76 Camera Variation 3 (Scovill Version)





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