This look at the history and a few of the better-known early products of Argus
Cameras was gleaned primarily from the new book "Argomania: A Look At
Argus Cameras And The Company That Made Them" by Henry J. Gambino. As
Gambino says, "How many other companies have a museum devoted solely to
its history and can also boast of a large, thriving, worldwide collectors group?"
A sold for $12.50 when introduced in May 1936. It had a phenolic
body, optical viewfinder, exposure counter mechanism, and retractable
drop-in lens assembly with a 50mm f/4.5 lens.
The firm that invented and produced Argus cameras in Ann Arbor, Michigan, started
out as the International Radio Corporation (IRC) founded by Charles Albert Verschoor,
a true American entrepreneurial genius. In 1932 IRC introduced the Kadette,
a small four-tube AC/DC radio that measured 85/8x61/2x4" and weighed only
6 lbs, which made it easily portable from room to room. One of its most innovative
features was its phenolic resin cabinet. The plastic cabinet and assembly lines
would lend themselves to the manufacturing of miniature cameras a few years
later. IRC soon marketed a kit that allowed Kadette owners to use the radio
in their automobiles and other vehicles, which effectively started the car radio
Their radio business was successful, but very seasonal, resulting in slack months
for IRC employees. So Verschoor worked on ideas to expand the product line to
keep the employees busy all year. Although this was during the Great Depression,
there was an expanding variety of film emulsions, though still very slow, and
the flash bulb was invented in '27, permitting easier indoor photography.
Two Kodak innovations in the mid-30s helped spur interest in miniature films.
Kodak introduced 35mm film in daylight-loading cartridges, which did away with
the need for the photographer to load the cassettes themselves in a darkroom.
Then, in '36, Kodak introduced Kodachrome slide film in 35mm format (with
a slow daylight speed of Weston--later termed ASA--10), bringing a
new market for inexpensive color photography. In '36, casual snapshooters
had a variety of inexpensive fixed-focus cameras to choose from, but most used
larger size roll film. Professionals and serious photographers who could afford
them often chose the costly German Leica or Contax 35mm cameras. A bit less
expensive was the Kodak Retina 35mm, which still cost $57.50, so most of the
miniature film cameras then were out of the reach of many aspiring photographers.
To put costs in context you have to realize a week's salary for the average
worker was only $10 back then.
The first of the nearly indestructible Bricks, Argus C-3 cameras
came along in 1939. It was the most widely sold American-made
35mm rangefinder camera in history (a total of almost 3,000,000
were produced) and it remained their flagship product until '66.
Initially it sold for $30 with a plug-in flash gun.
Verschoor foresaw a huge potential for an inexpensive miniature camera, one
that could be mass produced at low cost but of adequate quality to appeal to
a broad audience having limited funds. In May '36, the Argus A, which
sold for $12.50 (about 1/10 of the cost of a Leica back then), was introduced.
Eventually there were seven variations of the A series, all essentially the
same. There was a phenolic body, optical viewfinder, exposure counter mechanism,
and retractable drop-in lens assembly. The 50mm lens was an f/4.5 anastigmat
and there were four speeds on the shutter that was cocked by hand. There were
two settable focus positions: retracted for storage and carrying, for subjects
from 18 ft to infinity and close focusing for 6-18 ft. The phenolic resin body
could be produced by the same machinery as the company radios and the assembly
line could be kept busy the year round. Originally, IRC merely assembled the
cameras using purchased lens/shutter assembly made by Ilex Optical Company of
Rochester, New York. For the new business venture the company name became the
International Research Corporation. IRC not only advertised in the photographic
magazines of that era, but also ran ads in National Geographic and the brand-new
The outstanding success of the Argus A encouraged IRC to become a full-line
producer of photographic products. The Argus Model A slide projector was the
first of a long list of slide projectors. The projectors then were made by SVE
Corporation and could accept both 35mm slides and filmstrips. Throughout the
remainder of the '30s other cameras, slide projectors, accessories, and
darkroom products were added to the line. In the words of a '39 Argus
advertisement, "In the complete Argus line is everything you want for
full enjoyment of miniature photography at lowest cost."
In the late '30s IRC had three big camera winners, the Argus A, the Argus
C, and the Argus C-2, the forerunners of their most famous product, the boxy
and nearly indestructible "Bricks." In '39 they unveiled the
Argus C, which eventually would become the C-3, the most widely sold American-made
35mm rangefinder camera in history (a total of almost 3,000,000 were produced)
and it remained their flagship product until '66. Initially it sold for
$30 along with a proprietary flash gun, which plugged into two holes on the
side of the body.
The Argus C-4 (1951-'57) may have been the best camera Argus
built. It had a die-cast aluminum body, coupled rangefinder, coated
50mm f/2.8 Cintagon lens, behind-the-lens five speed shutter,
and built-in flash sync. It sold for $99.50. This is a very rare
In the late '30s IRC decided they should begin manufacturing their own
lenses so they bought Graf Optical Company and their manufacturing machinery.
During War World II camera production for civilian use was nil, but they had
many military contracts for manufacturing both optics and electronics. Argus
designed and manufactured precision optics, including tank periscopes, telescopes,
binocular lenses, and prisms plus various optical fire control devices as well
as electronic aircraft controls. They won the prestigious Army-Navy "E"
award five times during this period.
The entire photographic industry was caught up in the post-War World II boom
demand for civilian products. Even as late as '47 and '48 products
were still scarce and allocated to dealers. Manufacturers soon had to include
improvements in their prewar products. Internal flash synchronization (adopted
by Argus in '39 with the C-3) was now included in most other brands of
cameras. Lens coatings became commonplace for improved optics.