The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

The Prodigious life of George Eastman
Elizabeth Brayer
Program date: October 17, 2007


Many facets


Kodak and Brownie


Medical Centers


Afro-American edn


University support


First Eastman factory


1888 Kodak system


1889 transparent film


Going to the movies


Hiring talent


1932 - a small city


Selling London...


Funds Kodak bonuses


Plans for a home


Dreams on Lake Avenue


Soule house


New house plans


Autos catch on

Elizabeth BrayerAn award winning writer and editor, Betsy Brayer became interested in George Eastman during the period 1970-1986 while arts reporter, critic and editor at a Rochester NY newspaper. Her articles included a 43-part series on building the George Eastman House (published 1979-1980). She served as an historical consultant during restorationof George Eastman House in the late 1980s which gave her access to hitherto restricted Eastman Kodak Co. archives.

"George Eastman: A Biography" published in1996 by Johns Hopkins University Press and reprinted in 2006 by the University of Rochester Press is a welcome addition to the sparse literature about photography's North American titan and the first full-length biography of Eastman since 1930.

Betsy touched briefly on Eastman’s contributions to photography then moved on to the lesser known facets of this energetic entrepreneur and businessman. The following sections highlight some of the facets of the life of Rochester’s famous industrialist and philanthropist. For details, pick up a copy of Mrs Brayer’s biography “George Eastman”.

Photography: Eastman opened his State Street factory in Rochester in 1880 to manufacture photographic dry plates - the newest photographic technology of the day. A year later, wealthy whip manufacturer Henry Strong became Eastman’s partner, invested $5,000 in the new company. Innovations came thick and fast in the early years: paper-backed film on a roll plus a camera back replacing the plate holder (1884); the famous original Kodak camera and film/processing system (1888); world’s first transparent photographic film - 50 feet of it was used by Edison to make a motion picture - Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1889); and the inexpensive Brownie cameras for children and beginners (1900). Over the next three decades, Eastman Kodak expanded rapidly world-wide as it became the largest manufacturer in the photographic industry. By 1932, the year Eastman died, his Kodak Park in Rochester was itself the size of a small city.

Community: Eastman was a strong and consistent supporter of his community, making his first donation in 1886 when he contributed a sum of $50 to Rochester’s Mechanic’s Institute (school). Four years later he became a trustee of both the institute and the Rochester Orphan Asylum. After earning close to a million dollars when he recapitalized Kodak in London in 1897-8, Eastman shared the windfall with his community, employees and family. funding a new building for the Mechanics Institute; paying the first of many generous Kodak employee bonuses; and buying his first house leaving behind the many rented houses he occupied over the years with his widowed mother.

Industry: Eastman made many other changes in industry. In 1890, he approached the president of the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asking him to recommend a young engineer to build and operate the new Kodak Park - a remarkable delegation of responsibility. Four years later, a second request to MIT was made. This time for a woman chemist. The candidate, Harriet Gallup, became the first of many women hired to fill demanding jobs at Kodak.

George Eastman House: A memorable part of the Eastman legacy is his famous house on East Avenue. Bequeathed to the University of Rochester (UR), today it is the home of the International Museum of Photography. During the years of rented homes, Eastman designed and planned for his own house. When the Soule house, which he admired, came on the market, Eastman bought it and he and his mother lived there for the next decade while he continued working on plans and construction of a house built to his specifications. Originally, he looked for property on Lake Avenue, the old Boulevard Ontario, with its mix of fine residences and businesses. But realizing Kodak employees would travel by trolley down Lake Avenue on their way to work and being very private by nature, he decided to build over on East Avenue where he bought the Culver property - the last farm inside city limits. George Eastman House and gardens were built from 1902-5 under his watchful eye and the guidance of well known architects. He had mature elm trees brought in from Buffalo by barge along the Erie canal. Eastman had many house models created at the Camera Works factory. The final design incorporated elements Eastman admired in other famous houses and buildings. He later bought an adjacent property and tore down the house to construct a sunken garden. Being some distance from Kodak Office, Eastman travelled by horse drawn buggy and later by automobile. At one time he owned a fleet of six automobiles.

The story of his decision to cut his new house in two is well known. There was a conservatory in the middle of the house. Eastman was never satisfied with the room’s 30 x 30 foot dimensions, and finally, fifteen years after he built the house, he moved the rear half back ten feet, making the conservatory 30 x 40 feet. Cutting and moving the three story brick and concrete section took five weeks.

After his death in 1932, George Eastman House became the official residence of the UR presidents until 1947, when the building became the International Museum of Photography and residence of the museum’s first director.

Music and the Arts: Mrs Brayer told some anecdotes that suggested how Eastman became so enthusiastic about supporting music and the arts. She attributed his futile efforts to learn the flute as a youth to making him an educated listener to music. Exposure to musical evenings in England as a guest of the Dickmans in the 1890s added to his growing appreciation and may have led to his founding a music school in Rochester, later building a superb school, music hall and theatre. He bought musical instruments for Rochester school children and promising musicians. His new music school was treated to 18 organs, 100 pianos - and 200 waste baskets. He saw movies as a means to fund traditional theatre and incorporated the ideas into a new theatre that opened in 1922. The theatre, along with the school, became world famous under the guidance of a young Howard Hanson. Eastman’s trips to Europe also awakened his interest in art. He began buying paintings in the 1890s and today 55 of the paintings hang in the Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester.

Education: Eastman believed education was essential for the progress of mankind. Years later, the prestigious New York Times acknowledged Eastman’s influence in the world of education. An early support of education was his funding a new complex and campus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His generosity and involvement was kept anonymous until 1920. Other institutions benefitted as well - for example, he was his generation’s largest contributor to African American education. Over his life, he chose to support a small select group of institutions rather than trying to give a small amount to everyone.When he was first approached in 1898 to contribute to the University of Rochester (UR), he refused, professing no interest in education. Four years later he made the first of what totaled over $51 million in contributions to UR and made the institution a major beneficiary of his will. He also contributed funds to Oxford in England to establish a chair in American Studies.

Medicine: Mrs Brayer offered that Eastman’s interest in dentistry and medicine stemmed from his mother’s health issues - she once had eight teeth removed at home without any anesthetic and later had successful cancer surgery. in any case, he was instrumental in establishing the Rochester Dental Dispensary in 1915. It is now the Eastman Department of Dentistry at UR. Along with the dispensary, Eastman established the dental hygienist as a profession for woman (with appropriate teaching and training). All Kodak Park employees -and their children - had their teeth clean courtesy of Kodak - and so did all the other children in Rochester. Similar facilities were established in many major European cities under Eastman’s guidance.

In 1920, Abrham Flexner of the US General Education Board convinced Eastman to found a medical school in Rochester. Eastman in turn persuaded the daughters of his original partner, Henry Strong, to join him in financing a university hospital next door to Rochester’s municipal hospital. Dr George Whipple was brought in as dean of URs new School of medicine. In the next three decades, Dr Whipple received a Nobel prize for his discovery of a treatment for pernicious anemia.

Philanthropy: It was said that Eastman grew more in his last 20 years than in his first 50 years as his interests helped so many world wide. Eastman donated much of his wealth during his life-time. He supported and suggested many projects to make Rochester a wonderful place to live. For example, in the early 1900s, he collaborated with Dr Henry Strong Durand buying properties along lake Ontario to donate to the city as the Durand Eastman Park. Perhaps his greatest philanthropy was Kodak - the business he built and jobs it created in Rochester and around the world. For many decades Kodak and the University of Rochester have been the two largest employers in Rochester.

Final Years:. His last two years preceded a sad ending for such a dynamic individual. Eastman slowly developed a painful and irreversible spinal condition and was destined, like his mother, for a wheel chair and helpless reliance on others. As his health deteriorated, his staff kept most people from visiting him in the belief this was helping. Always a methodical individual, Eastman put his affairs in order, and carefully planned his demise: a codicil to his will to coverhis favourite charities, and especially the University of Rochester; a last tour of his successes in Rochester accompanied by friends and associates, unaware of the purpose of the tour; and finally a last meeting with members of the Kodak staff. He quietly wrote a brief note - then shot himself. His note explained, “To my friends. My work is done, why wait”?

A large church service and funeral parade brought his ashes to Kodak Park where they were interred at the entrance, the final resting place for a dynamic individual who did so much for Photography, Medicine, Education and the Arts.


A house divided

Buying art

Funding a hospital...

...a dental dispensary

Oral hygene for all

Founds a med school

Jobs in Rochester

Help for MIT
Rochester home for  theatre & musicians Kodak, Brownie  and other legacies

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