Polaroid is a non-entity these days, but instant photography lives on in the digital photos we produce at dazzling speeds. We're addicted, and that's what made Polaroid the hottest tech company in the world when its first blockbuster consumer product, the Model 95 Land Camera, went on sale. That was 65 years ago on Black Friday, November 26th, 1948.
Back in 1948, Black Friday wasn't the vicious consumer hell that it is today—it wasn't even called Black Friday. But it was still a frenetic shopping day right after Thanksgiving, and the symbolic beginning of the holiday season. If anything, the mad dash for the Land Camera that year foreshadowed the madness we experience during our contemporary shopping orgies.
There's an account of the event in Christopher Bonanos' wonderful survey of Polaroid's history, Instant. After years of development, the Model 95 Land Camera was finally ready for primetime, and so the sales team marched 56 units plus a demonstration model across town from the company's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Joseph Marsh, a large Boston department store. Employees setup the cameras in the back of the store, and started taking pictures of patrons. A commotion ensued:
All fifty-six cameras sold out that day. So did the demonstrator model. So did all the film. The salesmen ended up standing on the countertops because of the the crush of the crowds. The same scene played out elsewhere...
At $89.75 each, the Model 95 wasn't cheap—that's roughly the equivalent of $1130 in 2013. This was also back before "Polaroid" was a generic name for these types of cameras, and nobody had ever seen anything like it before. (For ages, the instant shooters were named "Land Cameras" after the company's founder-genius Edwin Land.) And yet, the product's runaway success was an early indicator of how a cutting edge gadget could capture the imagination of a huge audience:
The night before the product introduction, Land had suggested Polaroid might be able to sell 50,000 cameras per year, far more than anyone imagined possible. It turned out that even the visionary had lowballed himself. By the time the model 95 was retired in 1953, 900,000 had been sold.
Mind you, the Model 95 wasn't a perfect product. At just over four pounds, it was a beast of a toy for a casual photographer to carry around. It's nearly twice the weight of a top professional camera body like the Nikon D4 today. Furthermore, Land and his chemists at Polaroid hadn't yet figured out the right composition for the "goo" that developed and fixed the instant images onto the special photo paper. As Bonanos points out, the black-and-white photographs had a sepia tint that looked outmoded at a time when color photography was starting to emerge. And that's to say nothing of the fact that the images faded unless they were fixed with a foul-smelling ointment.
Indeed, the truly classic consumer Polaroid cameras like the tween-friendly Swinger and the near-perfect SX-70 were still decades away. But even in 1946, it was apparent that "instant" photography would be a hit, and that the day after Thanksgiving was a consumer battleground. And both still are, more than ever. [Amazon]