Bicycling With the 1891 Poco C Camera

Photography has an uncertain heritage.  Some say it was Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce who produced the first permanent image in 1826 or 1827. Others point to a little-known French-Brazilian inventor named Hércules Florence. What no one disputes is that it quickly became popular with the public.

By 1851, you could get your picture taken for between 50 cents to $10 but the process involved bulky equipment, impossibly long exposure times and toxic chemicals like mercury. Daguerreotype photographs such as these were favorites with the emerging middle class during the Industrial Revolution.

The Rochester Camera & Supply Company Telephoto Cycle Poco C Camera, circa 1891.

By the 1870s, however, technology had progressed to the point where the cameras themselves were available to the masses and the United States was swept by a photography craze. In Rochester, New York, dozens of companies began, merged and spun off competitors. Sometimes three or more companies would occupy the same building.

Just as America was in the grip of camera fever another fad captured the imagination and wallets of Americans, called “wheeling” or bicycling. Until this time, says the Smithsonian’s Christian Boggs, early bicycles were much too cumbersome for a casual

Samuel Murray and Benjamin Eakins on Bicycles, by Thomas Eakins, ca. 1895-1899.

day trip and cameras were far too bulky and complicated to carry on a Sunday stroll. Now, however, both were accessible and camera manufacturers scrambled to designed products to encourage the pairing of the two competing hobbies.

One popular result was the Rochester Camera and Supply Company’s Telephoto Cycle Poco C. It’s described in the company’s catalog as “the wheelman’s companion, being made very light and compact and can be easily carried on the wheel without inconvenience.”

“For wheelmen, there is nothing so pleasing as photography in connection with their tours, as it calls to mind the many beautiful scenes through which they have passed. The draw obtained is 16 inches, which is very advantageous in taking distant views. Price: complete with [Meniscus achromatic fixed-focus] lens, [Eastman automatic built-in] shutter and one Double Dry Plate Holder in 5 x 7 inch, $35.00.”

It quickly became the best-selling camera that the company produced.

At a time when the annual laborer’s wage could be as little as $1,500, a $100 bicycle (not including accessories) and a $35 Telephoto Cycle Poco marked it as being a hobby for the affluent.

“The cycling craze was short-lived,” says Boggs, “as the automobile quickly replaced the two-wheeled contraption as the ideal form of transportation. But the practice of photographing leisure experiences in nature clearly continues today.”

Joe Miller,

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