A few months ago we were offered this Eastman Kodak Vest Pocket “Autographic” camera, dating from about 1917. Our kind donor, Mr. James Reynolds of Illinois, said he purchased it, along with several others, about twenty years ago at a garage sale in Florida. Mr. Reynolds knew we might be interested in the camera because it bore the inscription of Theodore Widmayer, Amherst College class of 1917. Widmayer — where had I heard that name before? Normally we don’t add an item like this to our collection simply because it belonged to an alumnus. But Widmayer and his camera had seen and done interesting things. This was a camera with artifactual value. It had stories to tell.
Theodore Widmayer ’17 was one of about twenty-five Amherst College men and town residents who enlisted in June 1917 to form an ambulance corps to serve in the battlefields of Europe for the then-raging “Great War,” which the United States had just entered. After training in Allentown, Pennsylvania, they sailed for Europe and arrived in France in August 1917. Their official designation became S.S.U. (Section Sanitare Unis) 539, but they liked to call themselves the “Black Cat Squadron” and adopted the image of the black cat for their insignia.
As William S. McFeely ’52 points out in his article “The Black Cats of Amherst,” (Amherst magazine, Spring 2010), the men of S.S.U. 539 undoubtedly had mixed motivations for enlisting as ambulance drivers; among them certainly was a desire to do humanitarian work and, almost as certainly, a wish to avoid combat. Nevertheless, as their diaries preserved in the Archives and Special Collections attest, they endured and witnessed much of the war’s horrors. The unit was involved in three major military operations and collaborated with the French army in four minor ones. Over a period of nineteen months of service attached to both the French and American armies, it received two unit citations and 22 individual citations, including the esteemed Croix de Guerre with Palm. The unit arrived back in America on April 2, 1919, and the majority of the Amherst soldiers were discharged later that month at Camp Devens, Mass.
Our archival material relating to the Black Cats in Archives and Special Collections (finding aid) includes dozens of small black-and-white snapshots pasted into “memory books” documenting the exploits of S.S.U. 539 during World War I. It was a time when everyday snapshot photography was entering its boom period, and Kodak led the way. Rarely did an American embark on adventure anywhere in the world without packing one of Kodak’s handy, portable “Vest Pocket” cameras or a similar model. The men of S.S.U. 539 were no different. The photographs carefully mounted in the Black Cats’ albums, McFeely writes, showed “cathedrals in full splendor, cathedrals in ruins, wounded men, dead men and devastated battlefields—and of one another, often standing in front of the Ford Model Ts that served as their ambulances.”
Kodak’s Vest Pocket Autographic was a version of the extremely popular compact folding camera that was specially marketed as “The Soldier’s Camera” during World War I. From 1912 to 1926, Kodak’s sales of the Vest Pocket model reached 1,750,000. Folded, it isn’t much larger than many of today’s compact digital cameras. It used Kodak’s new smaller 127 film reel. “Autographic” refers to the feature that allows the photographer to write notes through an opening on the back of the camera directly onto the film; these notes were then burned onto the negative with exposure to the sun. Cheap, durable, compact, recordable and easy to use, a camera like this offered impressive advantages to the men on the battlefields of Europe.
Actually, the Widmayer camera is not the only Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic in our Objects Collection. It joins another one just like it that we received several years earlier, in fact, from the aforementioned William S. McFeely ’52. He is the son of William “Mac” McFeely ’20, who was also a fellow Black Cat with Theodore Widmayer.
Why bother to have two duplicate cameras?
Well, for one thing, the duplication illustrates how widely Kodak’s compact camera technology was in use on the battlefields of World War I; and for another, it is intriguing to believe that many or most of the extraordinary images we have in our S.S.U. 539 collection were probably captured by one or the other of these very cameras. Intriguing to an archivist, at least…