On the Water

Bernice Ellis' Kodak Brownie Camera

Sometime around her 17th birthday, Bernice Ellis asked for a camera. Her father bought her a Kodak Brownie box camera, either for Christmas 1911 or for her birthday on 10 January 1912. That winter, her picture was taken with the marvelous new gift.

Three months later, the White Star ocean liner Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland shortly before midnight on Sunday, 14 April. The brand new ship on its maiden voyage sent out multiple wireless distress signals before sinking at 2:15 a.m. the next morning. Around 1,500 passengers and crew perished with the vessel.

Although four ships responded to the Titanic’s distress calls, the Cunard liner Carpathia was the first vessel to show up at the wreck site a little after 3:30 a.m. It rescued the 711 surviving crew and passengers.

Bernice Ellis and her mother were the only Canadian passengers aboard the Carpathia, which was en route to the Mediterranean for a cruise. With her new camera, Bernice took pictures of the iceberg that sliced open the Titanic’s belly and also took deck shots of some of the Titanic survivors. The Carpathia turned around and headed back to New York to land the survivors, but before it even reached the wharf, newspapermen swarmed aboard to collect stories. Unaware of the value of her pictures, Bernice sold exclusive rights to Underwood & Underwood for just $10 and a promise to develop, print, and return her pictures after use. She donated her camera and pictures to the Smithsonian in 1986.

ID Number:
1986.0173.38
Maker:
Eastman Kodak Company
Material:
wood, glass, plated metal, copper alloy
Date:
ca. 1912
Dimensions:
5 1/4 in x 4 in x 6 1/4 in; 13.335 cm x 10.16 cm x 15.875 cm