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Behind the scenes at Kodak and Ilford camera factories in the 1930s

Published: 1 December 2021

These photographs from the Daily Herald Archive give a peek behind the scenes of photography manufacturing by two companies—Kodak and Ilford—in the 1930s.

The invention of gelatin dry plates represented an important stage in the democratisation of photography, and sparked a boom in the manufacture of cameras and photography equipment. Photographers from the Daily Herald were there to capture the process.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

The images in this selection were all taken from the archive.

Photography for all

The gelatin dry plate process replaced collodion wet plates. While collodion dry plates were available commercially as far back as 1857, they required long exposure times, so wet plates continued to be used for another 20 years.

In 1871, Richard Maddox suggested using gelatin as an emulsion rather than collodion and, following further experiments by John Burgess, Richard Kennett and Charles Harper Bennett, gelatin dry plates began to be sold commercially—first by the Liverpool Dry Plate company in 1874, but others soon followed. These plates were around 60 times more sensitive to light than collodion plates and could be exposed in a fraction of a second.

By 1878, George Eastman had invented a machine to coat dry plates and, with local inventor Henry Strong, set up the Eastman Dry Plate Company in 1881. In 1884, Eastman changed the name to Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company when he began experimenting with paper and film bases. ‘Kodak’ was first registered as a trademark in 1888, and the Eastman Kodak Company or ‘Kodak’ was founded in 1892. The first manufacturing plant outside the US was set up in Harrow in 1891.

In 1879 Alfred Harman also began manufacturing gelatin dry plates at Ilford after abandoning the calotype process he’d been using since 1862. He set up ‘Britannia Works’ in 1891, renaming it ‘The Britannia Works’ in 1898 before finally settling on ‘Ilford, Limited’ in 1902. Production sites were opened in Ilford, Brentford and Mobberley; the latter is still operational today.

The fact that gelatin dry plates could be manufactured in advance in a factory meant that photographers no longer needed to coat the plates themselves or travel with a portable darkroom. This contributed to the democratisation of photography and helped make it a popular pastime for a much wider audience.

This story will take a sneak peek behind the scenes at the Kodak and Ilford factories in the UK from the early 1930s when dry plates, film, paper and cameras were being produced.

Photography for all - gallery

‘You press the button, we do the rest’

George Eastman released his first camera in 1888. Simply named ‘Kodak’, with a second release called Kodak No 1, these devices were very simple box cameras with a fixed lens and single shutter speed. The cameras came pre-loaded with enough paper film for 100 exposures, and under the famous slogan ‘you press the button, we do the rest’, they would be sent back to the Kodak factory for processing and reloading with film, after which they were returned to the customer.

Hundreds of staff, mostly women, worked in semi-darkness developing and printing amateurs’ negatives. By 1932, 400,000 rolls of film were developed and more than 4 million contact prints were made each year at Kodak in Harrow.

View of numerous workers in a camera factory © Science Museum Group Collection
‘Twilight Workers’ at Kodak Works, 1932

Jobs with a silver lining

Factory workers handling and stacking silver ingots © Science Museum Group Collection

These workers at the Kodak Factory were always surrounded by wealth. The blocks of silver shown were used in the manufacture of silver nitrate for coating photographic film and paper.

Many tons of silver, worth thousands of pounds, were kept in stock at Harrow.

Silver nitrate is made by reacting silver with nitric acid which, when combined with a salt, will produce a silver halide (or silver salt). Silver halides, like silver bromide, are sensitive to light and form the basis for many of the silver-based photographic processes developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Factory workers stacking silver ingots © Science Museum Group Collection
Silver ingots at the Kodak Factory, c.1932

Seeing the unseen

The first infrared photographs were taken in the early 1900s by Robert Williams Wood, but Ilford only introduced their infrared photographic plates in 1932. These plates were first used outside their laboratory by Daily Herald photographer James Jarché, who in 1932 captured a cinema audience in darkness, lit only by infrared lamps invisible to the eye. Following this experiment, Jarché approached Ilford to produce the first photograph to show the manufacture of photographic plates.

Factory workers using infrared lights to make photographic dry plates Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix
Manufacturing photographic dry plates using infrared lights, Ilford Factory, 1933

The following is the caption from the back of the photograph above, which appeared as an article in the Daily Herald in November 1933.

Seeing the Unseen—This remarkable “Daily Herald” picture is the first ever taken of the actual manufacture of photographic plates. Made possible by the use of infra-red apparatus it shows the process of coating the plates with emulsion which is highly sensitive to all light except infra-red. This work is done in almost total darkness—in fact, Messrs. Ilford’s laboratory, where the experiment was carried out, was so dark that our photographer was led by the hand. Other than the fitting of infra-red screens to three lamps, which were thus rendered practically invisible, no special preparations were made. The plates seen on the conveyor were not spoilt and are to be sold in the usual way.

Behind the film (and paper and glass)

The base or ‘support’ of an analogue photograph—usually glass, film or paper—must go through various stages of preparation before it is ready to take a picture.

After acquiring or making the base material, the first stage is usually the preparation of photographic emulsion. Since the late 19th century, this emulsion has usually been silver salts dispersed in gelatin (along with other dyes and chemicals) which gives us silver gelatin prints, dry plates and films. Other emulsions are used to make alternative processes.

The exact ‘recipe’ used to produce emulsion varies depending on what type of base is being used and can significantly impact the quality, sensitivity and aesthetics of the product. Company recipes are often a well-kept trade secret!

In 1899, Kodak developed the continuous wheel process for manufacturing transparent film base, which had previously been coated on long tables. Paper and film are fed through these machines to be coated by the emulsion, a baryta layer and sometimes a resin, wax or oil topcoat.

After coating, the base has to be cooled and dried. This part of the process is done very slowly to prevent imperfections; if it is dried too quickly, for example, the emulsion layer can slide right off the base!

Master rolls of film and paper are cut down to size, metal cassettes are made for 35mm roll film, and 120 film is wrapped around plastic cores. The processed film, paper and glass is now ready to be packaged and sold to the customer.

Behind the film - gallery

Check, check and check again!

At Ilford’s factory in Mobberley, where film and papers are still being produced, a lot of these stages are now automated or done by a machine. Film and paper go through a long manufacturing process, moving from one machine and one room to another. However, people are still very important, and in some areas—like quality control—they are vital to the process.

Checks and tests are conducted at many stages throughout the manufacturing process. For example, raw materials used to make the photographic emulsion are tested on a small scale before being used as a coating. Coated and uncoated film, paper and glass is checked for scratches, repeat marks and coating quality. At Kodak in particular, junior staff members were often given the job of sifting through negatives to check for errors.

These checks are vital for big companies like Kodak and Ilford, whose customers rely on them producing a consistent product.

Check - gallery

Kodak moment

Kodak produced a number of different cameras that could be used by amateurs and professionals alike—but their success was in making photography accessible to all.

The first daylight-loading camera was marketed in 1891, allowing photographers to reload film outside the darkroom. The pocket Kodak was introduced in 1895, shortly followed by the folding pocket Kodak in 1898. The latter is considered the ancestor of modern roll-film cameras; it used 120 film, which was the standard size for decades before 35mm film took over in popularity.

Kodak’s famous Brownie cameras were manufactured in the USA from 1900 and introduced in the UK a few years later in 1908. Initially costing just $1, these cameras put the hobby of photography within the financial reach of nearly everybody.

Kodak introduced 16mm motion picture cameras, film and projectors in 1923. These were cheaper than the standard 35mm and immediately popular with amateur movie-makers.

Millions of these cameras were sold over the following decades. By 1932, the factory in Harrow was producing 2.5 million cameras a year.

Kodak’s clever advertising strategy marketed their cameras as a ‘must have’ rather than just a ‘could have’. Cheap, easy-to-use cameras were promoted as essential to capturing significant occasions such as family events and holidays and were largely aimed at women. The phrase ‘Kodak moment’ quickly entered the English lexicon and became synonymous with capturing an important moment.

Kodak - gallery

Further reading



Early photography and photographic processes