Hardware in Field Cameras
Almost all camera hardware (the little metal bits and pieces that operate the mechanisms) in the period 1870-1930 was brass. However, some cameras had nickel-plated brass hardware, and the finish of the hardware varied with the splendor of the camera desired by the manufacturer.
The 1870's and early 1880's saw a number of cameras having nickel-plated hardware. The brass underneath was well finished, so the nickel was meant to enhance the appearance rather than to cover a defect. Most early Blair cameras fall into this category, as well as a number of high-end Anthony. But American Optical and Scovill stuck to plain brass, it seems.
Un-plated brass had different treatment, depending on the price of the camera:
Lower price cameras had plain, stamped or cast parts, with little treatment other than some polishing. These pieces usually did not have any protective coating, and so oxidize over time.
Apparently some cameras were completely assembled prior to the varnish application -many Scovill Waterbury cameras show signs of the uncoated brass hardware partially covered by a varnish coat.
Several companies, including E.&H.T. Anthony and G. Gennert treated the brass parts of their finer cameras with what was called draw file finishing. Draw-filing is the act of holding a file parallel to the work and drawing it towards you, creating a pattern of parallel scratches in the brass. Sometimes, the pattern was complex, as in the example here. Such finely finished hardware deserved an equally fine protective coating. Reportedly, the brass part was heated, to which the varnish or shellac was brushed. Personally, I never managed to get the knack of that operation, usually producing a series of brush marks instead of the smooth finish that the old masters made.
Another feature of high-end cameras having the draw-file finish was that screws were chosen at random to fit with their slots aligned, then filed down flush along with the part. American Optical cameras almost always were produced this way, as in the example. Note that on the back of the camera, the screws are aligned parallel to the circle of brass.
By the 1900's, the labor-intensive draw-file finish had disappeared, apparently due to pricing pressures. It was replaced on high-end models by nickel-plated brass. In this period, the nickel was not the thin, elegant nickel of the 1880's, but instead a rather thick coating, apparently used to cover up the fact that the underlying brass was pretty much as cut or stamped, without any hand work involved.
The commercial, middle or low-end cameras naturally fared worse than the high-end cameras in the 1920's and 1930's, as polished brass gave way to matte-finished or perhaps we should say un-finished brass.
In the 1850's, metallic aluminum was more costly than gold. Only in 1889 was a process developed that allowed the large-scale production of aluminum. Accordingly, aluminum hardware is seldom seen on cameras 1870-1930. However, aluminum thumbscrews were apparently used as original equipment on the rare Star Camera Mfg. Co. view camera, shown at right.