creative:impact - How Argus Camera put Depression recovery in its viewfinder
Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
ABOUT THE ARGUS MUSEUM:
Founded back in 1987, the Argus Museum’s displays feature products manufactured by the Argus Camera Company and tells the stories of the company, the people involved and showcases unique collections connected to Argus. Our collections include a wide range of photography and radio equipment, military artifacts, photographs and documents associated with the company. The Museum is housed in the Argus I Building, which was one of the company’s manufacturing facilities, and operates under the umbrella of the Washtenaw County Historical Society.
The community of the Argus Museum is actually several different communities and includes local and regional artists, photographers in particular, historians, some local, collectors of photographs and/or photography equipment, families of former Argus employees, and employees themselves – there’s a few still among us. I am not exaggerating that our community extends all around the world.
Our events, both in-person and virtual, bring these communities together. The artists’ receptions, generally, bring together the most eclectic group. Besides the artists themselves and their family and friends, museum members, local residents and those interested in that particular show/theme are among those who attend. Our annual fall conference adds to that mix with collectors, historians and Argus families. While the past two years conferences have been virtual and logistically somewhat challenging, we have maintained the art aspect in the way of presentations given by photographers who talk about techniques and processes, history and their images. Our recent presenters’ ages range from eleven to eighty.
We host both solo exhibitions and group shows – many of the groups exhibit with us annually or bi-annually and include Wayne State University Students, Huron River Art Collective and the Crappy Camera Club. The exhibitions have explored themes such as condemned housing, Polaroids of Vietnam, portraits, alternative and historical processes and techniques, hometown images – a wide variety of themes. Partnering with CameraMall, in 2020, commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we collaborated with Camera mall and hosted a virtual photography exhibition titled “How Far Have We Come?” Photographers were asked to examine the challenges that women and other dis-enfranchised people face.
Local businesses have sponsored and supported our events – Besides CameraMall, Argus Farm Stop (Bill Brinkerhoff’s father was an Argus VP.), Found and Zingermans – just to name a few – have supported our events.
While we really miss our in-person events, we hope to reinstate them this summer, and to hold our annual conference in-person this fall September 29-October 2. A virtual option will likely be available too.
The company was established in 1931 to help Ann Arbor’s economy during the Depression Era by a group of Ann Arbor businessmen led by Charles Vershoor. Originally known as the International Radio Corporation (IRC), they expanded their line to include cameras and other types of photography equipment and played a major role in popularizing amateur photography.
The model A, which was introduced in 1936, was the first entirely American-made 35 mm camera. With an appealing price tag of $9.95, the company claimed 30,000 were sold the first week. Reflecting the company’s success in the camera business, the name was changed to the International Research Corporation. In 1938, the model C3, or the “brick”, was introduced. Over two million bricks were sold during the next 28 years. The C3 holds a position in photographic history analogous to the Model T Ford; it has been called the most popular 35 mm camera in history.
The company also played a significant role in WWII’s Arsenal of Democracy manufacturing radio components and sighting devices. The company was given the Army-Navy E Award five times. The company also changed its name several times before being known as Argus Cameras Inc
From the Ann Arbor District Library
The Story of Argus Camera
The story of the Argus Cameras, Inc. is one of ideas, perseverance and adaptability.
Founded in the Depression years by businessmen who were as tough as the times, it employed, at its height, 1300 workers and occupied 2 city blocks on 4th Street.
In 1929, local inventor Charles A. Verschoor and Mayor William E. Brown Jr. started a radio manufacturing business with support from local bankers called the International Radio Company. In 1932 they produced the Kadette, the first radio that used tubes instead of a large transformer. Verschoor then traveled to Europe researching the idea of producing a camera (like the Leica) but made and sold for $10. With the first camera rolling off the assembly line in 1936, the name of the company was changed to Argus, after the Greek mythological god of 1,000 eyes. The Model A camera was so popular, it sold 30,000 units by Montgomery Ward in the first week.
In the 1940s, with stiff competition from cheaper Japanese cameras available on the market, Argus diversified its product lines with projectors, optical and specialty equipment for several United States Department of Defense contracts during WWII, and the Korean War, thus saving many local jobs.
Local historians like to point out that Argus Cameras, as one of Ann Arbor’s early industries, was 100% Ann Arbor: 100% Ann Arbor capital, 100% Ann Arbor brains, and 100% Ann Arbor people. The Old News staff have gathered decades of news articles, photos and videos that trace the rise and decline of this very important manufacturer in local history.
While the business no longer exists, Argus cameras remain much sought-after collectibles. (See them at the Argus Museum Exhibits and photos taken by AADL photographer Tom Smith). The original Argus buildings still stand, now used by various departments of the University of Michigan, and inspired local author Steve Amick’s second novel Nothing but a Smile (2009).
AADL has partnered with the Argus Museum to digitize a wide variety of images and documents that build a fuller picture of what it was like to work at Argus Camera, its products, people, and impact.
Ann Arbor News Articles AADL has digitized hundreds of articles from the Ann Arbor News documenting the history of Argus Camera as it happened. These articles include announcements of new products, changes in the company, and the company's impact on the Ann Arbor Community. Argus Camera's role as an industry leader and a major employer in the area assured that coverage by the Ann Arbor News was in-depth.
Argus Eyes AADL has digitized the Argus Eyes, the employee newsletter of Argus Camera. This publication includes details about the company and its workers, from descriptions of new product lines and facilities to birth announcements and company picnics. And of course, given its source, it is also full of spectacular photos, many of them from the Ann Arbor area.
The Argus Museum and AADL have conducted multiple interviews with former Argus employees whose stories put a human face on multinational company.
In addition to the Argus Eyes, the Argus Museum and AADL have made available digitized copies of many of the publications created by the Argus Camera organization over the years. These include instruction manuals for many of Argus's products, parts lists for the same, and educational booklets on how to take better photographs using Argus cameras.
The Argus Museum and AADL have also made available a collection of photographs of Argus products and the museum itself. These include high-resolution photos of some of Argus Camera's most iconic creations, from the Kadette Radio to the Argoflex camera.
ABOUT CHERYL CHIDESTER:
While Cheryl’s career path has taken multiple turns and directions, creativity, research and stories, and sharing what she learns, have been focuses in all her work. After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, she was employed as a graphic designer and then as an art gallery manager and an art instructor for Montessori schools and after-school programs. She returned to Eastern to earn a Master of Science degree with a concentration in Historic Preservation which led her to a position with a cultural resource consulting firm as an architectural historian.
When, back in 2006, the curator of the Argus Museum was leaving the position, she contacted Cheryl –she felt that she would be great for the job! For a few years, Cheryl worked for both the museum and for the consulting firm but then decided to focus on the Argus Museum and work independently as an architectural historian and as well as curate private collections. Beginning in her high school days, Cheryl has, to varying degrees, created art and exhibited her work receiving numerous awards. She has written successful grants not only for the Museum and for her artistic professional development but also for the organizations that she is involved in as a volunteer.
Like many who work for a small museum, Cheryl is involved with many aspects of the museum’s operations – a museum dedicated to artifacts related to the Ann Arbor-based Argus (camera) Company and its stories. Research, cataloging, exhibition development, event planning and marketing are among her responsibilities. Community outreach programing is an important aspect of the museum’s mission and includes tours and demonstrations for school children and adult classes and organizations, off-site presentations, hosting community events such as photography exhibits of local and regional artists and an annual conference that draws attendees from around the country, Canada and, occasionally, from places such as England and Australia. More recently, pandemic-driven virtual “gatherings” have also attracted participants from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Germany.
Along her way, Cheryl has been fascinated by the stories – sometimes told by people – sometimes by an artifact, document or a work of art. She finds that sharing these stories with others is one of the more fulfilling aspects of her work.
Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Thanks for tuning in every Tuesday as we meet creative guests rooted in Washtenaw County and explore how their creative businesses, products, programs, and services impact and add to our local quality of life, place, and economy. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. You know, innovation is often born out of sheer creativity and genius and other times out of necessity. In 1931, during the depths of the Depression, a group of Ann Arbor businessmen came together to aid Ann Arbor's economy. Here to tell us their story is Cheryl Chidester, curator of the Argus Museum in Ann Arbor. Cheryl, welcome to creative:impact.
Cheryl Chidester: Hi. Thanks for having me here, Deb.
Deb Polich: Hey. So, like, take us back 90 or so years ago. What did these men set out to accomplish?
Cheryl Chidester: Well, they wanted to employ unemployed people in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, and they originally established a radio company.
Deb Polich: Radio is big then.
Cheryl Chidester: Yes, yes. But the problem was people didn't buy radios in the summertime.
Deb Polich: Really?
Cheryl Chidester: So they had to think of a product that had some of the components people would buy in the summer months.
Deb Polich: So why didn't they buy radios in the summertime?
Cheryl Chidester: People were outside.
Deb Polich: Oh yeah, and no air conditioning.
Cheryl Chidester: Right. Although Argus did make probably the first ever car radio.
Deb Polich: Oh, really?
Cheryl Chidester: Yes. And also a pocket radio. But you had to have quite a big pocket to fit that radio in.
Deb Polich: It's like those old boomboxes we used to have. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Cheryl Chidester: So, on a trip, one of the founding members, on a trip to Europe, visited the Leica factory that, "Oh, we can make an inexpensive, affordable camera for the everyday, amateur photographer. And back then, there weren't really amateur photographers. Those people went to the studio and had the photos taken by professionals.
Deb Polich: Sure. Sure, sure. You see all those pictures. The old-timey pictures. Yeah.
Cheryl Chidester: So this was kind of just the very beginning of amateur photography.
Deb Polich: And so, they really thought that starting a new business in the depths of the Depression was going to help. I mean, that takes a lot of courage to do that. And did they end up being successful in and moving the economy in Washtenaw or Ann Arbor?
Cheryl Chidester: They did. They employed hundreds of people, you know, in the height of their of the company. Yes.
Deb Polich: Wow. So, I did read a bit in the history of the radio business was barely 10 years old by then. And they created this cadet version. And you mentioned the car radio, but they also produced AC/DC, which was new in clock radios.
Cheryl Chidester: Yes. You know, Argus was actually a very innovative company when it came to the radios and with cameras, citing devices, slide projectors. They hold a lot of patents.
Deb Polich: Wow. That's amazing.
Cheryl Chidester: Commercially, they sold all their radio patents at one time to RCA.
Deb Polich: OK, so, well, so those still continued for years and years later. So, getting back to the cameras, and I know people in this town that think of Argus cameras are like the best or they were certainly at the time. What did they do to change that industry?
Cheryl Chidester: Well, they made it affordable.
Deb Polich: OK.
Cheryl Chidester: So, the first 35mm camera they put out sold thousands, tens of thousands, the first couple of weeks because it was affordable. It was one twentieth the price of a Leica.
Deb Polich: And were these, you know, were these--they obviously they use film, but it was the old film that you had to roll?
Cheryl Chidester: 35mm. It was just recently, at the time, began to produce on a roll, so it made it a lot more convenient for the amateur photographer.
Deb Polich: OK, so pictures were happening all over. They get in developing as well, or was that done somewhere else?
Cheryl Chidester: It was done somewhere else.
Deb Polich: OK. OK.
Cheryl Chidester: Well, they did develop some films at Argus, but it was mostly for the company type thing, so...
Deb Polich: And did it turn out that they were successful in their goal to bring business and jobs?
Cheryl Chidester: Argus was only second to Kodak for over 30 years.
Deb Polich: Wow.
Cheryl Chidester: And then companies in, back then, West Germany, Canada, Australia. So there were an international company.
Deb Polich: And I heard that that they claim to be 100 percent Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor capital, Ann Arbor brains, and Ann Arbor people.
Cheryl Chidester: I don't think that's totally true, but they did.
Deb Polich: Sounds good.
Cheryl Chidester: They didn't rely a lot on the local population. They did.
Deb Polich: Well, I'm going with it.
Cheryl Chidester: They did bring some. One of their VP's was, I believe, Belgian, and he helped design some of the cameras. He was a very innovative person. He was recruited by the company, and they did bring some Germans in because they were very well-known for their blends grinding capabilities.
Deb Polich: Oh. OK.
Cheryl Chidester: So, they actually taught us how to do this.
Deb Polich: Yes, all of this right here in Ann Arbor. 891 WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Cheryl Chidester, curator of the Argus Museum in Ann Arbor. So, I read that somewhere around 1959, Sylvania bought Argus and then sold it, which by that time had ceased camera production. You know, Argus was located in Ann Arbor the whole time, right? Where was it located?
Cheryl Chidester: Well, it was in Ann Arbor and then towards the 1960's, they had other plants in the U.S. One was in Columbia, South Carolina, and also they had a distribution company or warehouse in Chicago. So, they start closing shop here. They still continue to make slide projectors in South Carolina and did other things in Chicago. And some of the former Argus employees actually got together and started another company--it was Huron Cameras ended up being. But they actually did a lot of the lens grinding and other things for Argus as deal as subcontractors.
Deb Polich: OK. And so, where was the Argus building? Where is the corporate headquarters?
Cheryl Chidester: It's where the Argus Museum is today.
Deb Polich: Which is where?
Cheryl Chidester: On West William and Fourth. We're very unique. Other camera museums around here--around the state--I think we're really unique that we actually have the museum inside the building that they were manufactured in. I think that's pretty unique and special.
Deb Polich: And it was kind of led by two other Ann Arbor businessman, Joe O'Neill and Bill Martin, who bought the building, I believe, and then put their businesses there.
Cheryl Chidester: Yes, they put the businesses there, and they realized the history of the building, and they both are, you know, love local history in particular. And they found some of the old equipment and devices that Argus had manufactured. And they realized that they should have something there to commemorate that. So, they bought a private collection, and that's how it all started.
Deb Polich: And it being that what is now the Argus Museum which you curate.
Cheryl Chidester: Right.
Deb Polich: And if I were to walk into it, first of all, is that open to the public?
Cheryl Chidester: Yes. Monday through Friday, eight to five. It's open to the public or by appointment or special events.
Deb Polich: And what do I see when I walk through the museum?
Cheryl Chidester: A lot of cameras.
Deb Polich: I bet.
Cheryl Chidester: But also a lot of...we do have a case of military items because Argus was big in the military, particularly in World War Two. They won five "E" awards--"E" for excellence with Army-Navy awards.
Deb Polich: So, they were still very much productive in those days and around 1942 and beyond, continuing their economic recovery and growth.
Cheryl Chidester: And there were really big in the 50s, too. We have other kinds of equipment and projectors on display. We tell stories of Argus employees and other stories that are related to Argus. Included is all Gustaf Husein, who I mentioned, who was the Belgian designer. He has some things in there. Milt Hinton was a jazz musician. He started off with an Argus A. The camera--we'll don't have THE camera--we have the type of camera that was taken the day that JFK was assassinated.
Deb Polich: Oh, OK.
Cheryl Chidester: And the camera that the picture was taken is in the museum down there.
Deb Polich: OK, so you have it. So, you know, some innovative products become kind of get a cult following? Does Argus have a cult following?
Cheryl Chidester: Oh yeah. I'm amazed, truthfully. We've had eight Zoom gatherings as we call them during the pandemic, and we've had people attend from Australia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, all around the world, and Canada, of course, and all around the States.
Deb Polich: And are these original users of the equipment are people that have discovered it over time?
Cheryl Chidester: Both.
Deb Polich: OK.
Cheryl Chidester: You know, The last set of presentations we had, we had an 80 year-old present and an 11 year-old present.
Deb Polich: Oh my gosh. Tell me about the 11 year-old.
Cheryl Chidester: A couple of the members donated cameras to him because he likes to take photographs. And so, he took some photographs of this new Argus C-3 and then showed everybody the photographs he took.
Deb Polich: How cool. And I think you guys do organized tours too. People can call and schedule those?
Cheryl Chidester: Yes. Yes we do.
Deb Polich: Terrific. Cheryl, thanks for giving us this picture of the past.
Cheryl Chidester: Ah, clever.
Deb Polich: Yeah, you saw what I did there. And, really, thanks for joining us here on creative:impact. My first in-person guest since the pandemic.
Cheryl Chidester: I'm privileged.
Deb Polich: So that's pretty cool. It's been great hearing the history of some of Ann Arbor's 20th century creative inventors. And we'll look back to, you know, having a chance to go see the show and go through the collection.
Cheryl Chidester: And hopefully we'll have photography exhibitions again soon. We had them in the past--four or five a year. They've been on hold. We're hoping to get something together by this fall.
Deb Polich: Oh, great. Well, let us know. That's Cheryl Chidester, curator of the Argus Museum located in Ann Arbor. Find out more about Cheryl and the Argus Museum at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Please join me next week to meet another creative Washtenaw guest unless your community NPR radio station, 89 one WEMU and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.
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