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Icebergs, a Shipwreck and the Kodak Girl

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In this day and age of digital photography, we often forget the magic of classic photography.  Capturing moments in time.  When photos were first taken and presented in the mid 1800’s, photography was still an expensive novelty. Around the turn of the century this nostalgia was fully realized by George Eastman.  Eastman was not only an inventor but also a marketing genius.  In 1892, Eastman established the Eastman Kodak Company. He was granted a patent in 1888 (U.S. patent # 388,850) for a camera after the first roll of film he patented in 1884. Before this time, film was produced on ‘dry plates’ and Eastman patented the idea of ‘roll film’, which seemed more practical for everyday use. George Eastman wanted to bring photography to everyday people and make it more practical and affordable.

Recently, I shared a newspaper article by Charlotte Collyer, who was a surviving passenger on the Titanic the night she sank. The realism of her story is fantastic.  Most people in that time could only describe their experiences in story rather than pictures.  I began to wonder what would things have been like if the disaster had only been captured on photographic film?  Photos were taken, but it was not until after the disaster, which included a few photos of the rescued passengers and icebergs.  Who took the photos of the survivors and the iceberg?  One young girl, named Bernice Palmer, was one of the few people on board the Carpathia with a camera.  She was the first to capture images of the Titanic survivors.

Bernice Palmer was traveling to the warm waters of the Mediterranean with her mother on holiday. On the morning of April 15th, 2012, they suddenly found themselves in the midst of a freezing ice field picking up passengers from the ill-fated Titanic.

Bernice Palmer was traveling to the warm waters of the Mediterranean with her mother on holiday. On the morning of April 15th, 1912, they suddenly found themselves in the midst of a freezing ice field picking up passengers from the ill-fated Titanic. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

Some 20 years earlier, George Eastman introduced the Kodak Girl.  She was a young, fashionable girl.  This was an important marketing strategy realized by Eastman himself.  It targeted young women in an effort to get them involved in amateur photography.  If it was not for the good fortune and success of the “Kodak Girl’s” campaign, we may have not witnessed some of the most important images of this century’s greatest maritime disaster.

This is the story of a young girl from Galt, Ontario who captured a few snapshots of history on that fateful day.


In 1893, George Eastman introduced the Kodak Girl, a young, fashionable girl in an effort to  target young women to get them involved in amateur photography. In another context, it also reinforcing the notion that the cameras were so versatile and easy to use that ‘even a girl can use it’


In 1900, Kodak introduced the “Brownie box” camera. Eastman had approached his lead designer Frank Brownell in 1898 to come up with a camera that a child could operate and bring it to the masses.  It had to be inexpensive and reliable.  Eastman knew that if he cornered this market, it would boost film and camera sales.  For over 80 years, the “Brownie” would be one of the most popular personal cameras.  This marketing campaign also included increased marketing with the “Kodak Girls.”  This marketing campaign included monthly ads in magazines such as Harper’s, Collier’s Weekly, Kodak catalogues and newspapers. At the height of the Victorian age, women were getting out into the world, displaying a new independence. This meant more vacations and trips to the beach! This ‘modern women’ was living life at its fullest and what better way to capture that life than in pictures with your very own Brownie!  As a marketing genius, Eastman banked on it.

Early 20th Century Kodak Girl. "Capture the moments that matter." (Courtesy Vintage Everyday)

Early 20th Century Kodak Girl. “Capture the moments that matter.” (Courtesy Vintage Everyday)

In 1911, a young 18 year old Bernice Palmer received the Kodak Brownie box camera for her birthday. Bernice had just gotten her camera as a gift from her parents a few months before.  Luck would have it that she was traveling on the Carpathia the day the Titanic sank.


At the height of the Victorian age, women were getting out into the world, displaying a new independence.


The Carpathia (1912) - Wikipedia

The Carpathia (1912) – Wikipedia

Bernice and her mother were traveling on the Carpathia to the Mediterranean with 700 passengers on board. In the early morning hours of April 15th, 1912, Captain Rostron was awakened by his wireless operator about a distress call from the sinking Titanic. He immediately changed course to traverse the 60 miles to the disaster. After passing six icebergs on its way, it finally arrived at 4:00am and began picking up survivors. Bernice was on hand with her camera the next morning to capture some famous images on her Brownie Box camera.  She used the Kodak Brownie box camera to capture some of the most famous and iconic photographs after the Titanic disaster. She was also the first the capture a photo of the iceberg that sank the Titanic.


On the morning of April 15th, 1912, they suddenly found themselves in the midst of a freezing ice field picking up passengers from the ill-fated Titanic.


Bernice awoke from the bitter cold.  She opened a port-hole of her first-class cabin on the Carpathia and turned to her mother and said, “Something terrible has happened.”  She quickly got dressed and hurried on deck.  Bernice and her mother stood quietly on deck as the crew of the Carpathia began rope-lifting passengers up from the life boats.  Some of the children from the Titanic rescue boats where so terrified they were drawn up in burlap bags.

Bernice Palmer

Bernice remembers as the passengers where being lifted that “their faces looked frozen and terrified”.  She remembers seeing many of the first class passengers being rescued as ‘well-dressed’.  “A well-dressed woman always wore a hat when she went out – even on a shipwreck.”  She remembers how many of the women were wearing over-sized coats from the men who went down with the Titanic.  “Women with borrowed cloths from the lost men who went down with the ship”.

After all the survivors were rescued, the Carpathia made another pass over the site of the Titanic’s sinking.  “I saw the floating deck chairs . . . ”  It was at this moment that Bernice realized the magnitude of what had happened.  It took the Carpathia about three days to return to New York. After rescuing the survivors, Captain Rostron had abandoned the trip to the Mediterranean and returned to New York.  He gave strict orders for a news “blackout” regarding the Titanic tragedy during the return trip.

While on the Carpathia, Bernice was approached by an unnamed newsman for Underwood & Underwood, a New York photography agency. Underwood & Underwood quickly drew up a contract to distribute the photos that Bernice had taken on the Carpathia. They offered to develop, print and return the pictures to Bernice for ten dollars.  In the contract, however, it states “In consideration of One Dollar, lawful money of the UNITED STATES, and other valuable consideration . . . “.  I’m not sure if she actually just got one dollar or ten dollars, but it was a measly sum for five of the most iconic photographs of the Titanic survivors and iceberg.   Here are the five photos released to Underwood & Underwood by Bernice Palmer.  Sometime later, her father was quite upset with this arrangement since Bernice did not realize the importance of these photos.

The UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD contract signed by Bernice Palmer giving up the copyright to four photos taken on the Carpathia.

The UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD contract signed by Bernice Palmer giving up the copyright to five photos taken on the Carpathia.

The contract reads as follows:  Assignment of Copyright. “Know all men by these presents”

That, we, UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD, a corporation organized and existing under and by virtue of the laws of the State of New Jersey, in consideration of One Dollar, lawful money of the UNITED STATES, and other valuable consideration to us in hand pain, before the ensealing and delivery of these presents, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, have sold, assigned, transferred and set over and by these presents do sell, assigns, transfer and set over unto BERNICE PALMER of Galt, Ontario, Canada, her executors, administrators and assigns to her and their own proper use and benefit, all our right, title and interest in and to the copyrights heretofore taken out by us for five separate photographs, which are numbered and entitled as follows:

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In the early morning on board the Carpathia, Bernice Palmer captures images of the surivors of the Titanic on her Brownie camera. Most of the women are wearing overcoats or "borrowed cloths" from the men who went down with the Titanic.

In the early morning on board the Carpathia, Bernice Palmer captures images of the surivors of the Titanic on her Brownie camera. Most of the women are wearing overcoats or “borrowed cloths” from the men who went down with the Titanic. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

First authentic photograph, taken by Miss Bernice Palmer, who was on board the Carpathia, showing a group of rescued passengers of the ill-fated “Titanic” on board the rescue ship.

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Mr. and Mrs. George A. Harder, a young honey-moon couple of Brooklyn, N.Y., who were rescued from the steamship Titanic. Facing them with her head on her hands weeping, is Mrs. Chas. M. Hayes, who husband, Charles M. Hayes, Pres. of the Grand Trunk Railway went down on the Titanic while she and her two daughters were rescued. (Bernice Palmer |Smithsonian)

Mr. and Mrs. George A. Harder, a young honey-moon couple of Brooklyn, N.Y., who were rescued from the steamship Titanic. Facing them with her head on her hands weeping, is Mrs. Chas. M. Hayes, who husband, Charles M. Hayes, Pres. of the Grand Trunk Railway went down on the Titanic while she and her two daughters were rescued. (Bernice Palmer |Smithsonian)

A most remarkable photograph taken by Miss Bernice Palmer, a passenger on the Carpathia, showing Mr. and Mrs. George A. Harder, a young honey-moon couple of Brooklyn, N.Y., who were rescued from the steamship Titanic. Facing them with her head on her hands weeping, is Mrs. Chas. M. Hayes, who husband, Charles M. Hayes, Pres. of the Grand Trunk Railway went down on the Titanic while she and her two daughters were rescued.

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Survivors of the Titanic aboard the Carpathia rested on deck chairs, wrapped against the cold. (Bernice Palmer | Courtesy of Cara E. Bute)

Survivors of the Titanic aboard the Carpathia rested on deck chairs, wrapped against the cold. (Bernice Palmer | Courtesy of Cara E. Bute)

First authentic photograph taken by Miss Bernice Palmer, who was on board the “Carpathia”, showing a group of rescued passengers of the ill-fated “Titanic” on board the rescue ship.

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First images of the icebergs and ice field on the morning of April 15th, 2012. Bernice saw debris and deck chairs floating in the ice field. She then realized the magnitude of the tragedy.

First images of the icebergs and ice field on the morning of April 15th, 1912. Bernice saw debris and deck chairs floating in the ice field. She then realized the magnitude of the tragedy. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

First authentic photograph taken by Miss Bernice Palmer, who was on board the “Carpathia”, showing iceberg and icefield run into by the Titanic, which caused the greatest marine disaster.

On the back of this photograph, Bernice wrote:

“[The] Titanic struck a North Atlantic iceberg at 11:40 PM in the evening of 14 April 1912 at a speed of 20.5 knots (23.6 MPH).  The berg scraped along the starboard or right side of the hull below the waterline, slicing op the hull between five of the adjacent watertight compartments.  If only one or two of the compartments had been opened, Titanic might have stayed afloat, but when so many wer sliced open, the water-tight integrity of the entire forward section of the hull was fatally breached.  Titanic slipped below the waves at 2:20 AM on 15 April.  The Cunard Liner RMS Carpathia arrived at the scene around two hours after Titanic sank, finding only a few lifeboats and no survivors in the 28F degree water.  Bernice Palmer took this picture of the iceberg identified as the one which sank Titanic, almost certainly identified by the survivors who climbed aboard Titanic.  The large iceberg is surrounded by smaller ice floes, indicated how far north in the Atlantic Ocean the tragedy struck.”

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This is the iceberg thought to have sunk the Titanic. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

This is the iceberg thought to have sunk the Titanic. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

First authentic photograph taken by Miss Bernice Palmer, who was on board the “Carpathia”, showing iceberg and icefield run into by the Titanic, which caused the greatest marinedisaster.


Bernice also took a number of other photographs on the Carpathia the morning of April 15, 1912:

Carpathia crew members the morning of April 15, 2012. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

Carpathia crew members the morning of April 15, 1912. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

Sailor from the Carpathia on the morning of April 15, 2012 (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

Sailor from the Carpathia on the morning of April 15, 1912 (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

This first newspapers who used Bernice's photographs. This one shows the proposed location of the iceberg that collided with the Titanic.

The first newspapers of the disaster used Bernice’s photographs. This one shows the proposed location of the iceberg that collided with the Titanic. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

Another photo by Bernice showing the iceberg in the distance and one of the Carpathia life boats. She states that this was the largest iceberg in the area and undoubtedly had to be the iceberg involved in the Titanic collision.

Another photo by Bernice showing the iceberg in the distance and one of the Carpathia life boats. She states that this was the largest iceberg in the area and undoubtedly had to be the iceberg involved in the Titanic collision. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

This is a photo of Bernice (Far right), her mother and some friendly passengers taken the morning of April 15th, 2012. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

This is a photo of Bernice (Far right), her mother and some friendly passengers taken the morning of April 15th, 1912. (Bernice Palmer | Smithsonian)

In 1986, Bernice Palmer Ellis donated her Kodak Brownie Camera, photographs taken of the Titanic survivors and icebergs, and other materials to the Smithsonian Archive.

The Kodak Brownie Box camera used by Bernice Palmer on the morning of April 15th, 1912 to take the first photos of the rescued passengers from the RMS Titanic. (Smithsonian)

She wrote a letter to the Smithsonian in part as follows:

Letter written to the Smithsonian by Bernice Palmer when she donated her camera and photos to the museum. (Smithsonian Channel)

Letter written to the Smithsonian by Bernice Palmer when she donated her camera and photos to the museum. (Smithsonian Channel)

“I am pleased that the Smithsonian Institution has the camera which took the picture of the iceberg which sank the Titanic, also of the ice flow on the ocean in the area where the ship went down with its terrified passengers of over two thousand.  After all the survivors were safe on board our ship, the Carpathia, it sailed all around  . . . it was then when I realized the terrible disaster which had happened to such a great number of our humanity.  There was much more that I will never forget. ”  

**********


Al Kline - Editor/writer Featured E Magazine

Al Kline – Editor/writer Featured E Magazine

Original post written by Al Kline.  All rights reserved.  Al Kline lives and South Texas and loves to read and write among other things.  You can contact him at featuredemagazine@gmail.com


Links, Sources and Photo Credits

George Eastman
Kodak Girls-Martha Cooper Collection
National Museum of American History
The Guardian-Collier’s Magazine, 1911
Early 1900 Camera Talk & Giveawy
Saved from the Titanic: A women’s story (1912)
What Ever Happened to Carpathia? The Ship that Saved Titanic’s Survivors?
Bernie Palmer’s Story
Looking at Artifacts, Thinking about History (Smithsonian)
Harold-Tribune- Google News
Photographs of the World’s Most Famous Ill-Fated Voyage
Collection Highlights (Smithsonian)
The Kodak Girl: Women in Kodak Advertising
Photographs of the World’s Most Famous Ill-Fated Voyage-Video| Smithsonian Channel

7 replies »

  1. This is probably the first thing I’ve read from the point of view of the Carpathia, I’ve seen some of the pictures before, of course, but this was wonderfully well written and researched. I love history and I’m delighted to find something new and interesting to read about something about which I thought everything had already been said 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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