May Fair folding camera

This camera is a cheap offering from the early to mid 20th century. The camera was never offered for sale – it could only be obtained by saving coupons in packets of cigarettes. In order for the cigarette companies to do this without losing money, the camera had to be cheap, but not so cheap as to not attract customers.

P1010318 copyThe camera was made by the Houghton Butcher company in London – this information is stamped into the leatherette on the back. As far as I can see, this is not just a rebadged model from Houghton and Butcher’s catalogue but was made especially for the cigarette company  (Ardath Tobacco Co. Ltd.). It is, however, very similar to Houghton and Butcher’s No. 3 Carbine of the same date. The shutter is different as well as some minor details.

P1010322 copySo, a description. This is a standard folding camera of its time. Two design features lead me to think that this camera was made very close to 1930 (or else was made later to a very old-fashioned design). First, there is no shutter speed dial – the shutter has a rim-set speed selector. This feature was only introduced in 1928 by Compur so the camera must have been made after that. Second, the camera is not self-erecting. When opening the camera for use, the user must manually pull the shutter/lens assembly forward on rails. This type of design was decidedly passé by the mid-1930s. Of course, if the cigarette company wanted tp keep prices down, they might well have stuck with a very old design.

I like my blog to rely entirely on the camera in front of me. Yet, sometimes, there is information I would like which cannot be derived from the camera itself. An Interweb search gains me the information that the camera was offered to customers of the Ardath Tobacco Company. They traded from 1927 to 1933 so this camera was offered between these dates. In an Ardath Tobacco Company catalogue that a dates from 1930, this model May Fair was offered for 395 vouchers. (information from the Redbellows site).

P1010319 copyP1010320 copyThe camera is a full-frame camera using 120 film (called E20 on the sticker in the film chamber. I think that the ‘E’ refers to ‘Ensign’ which was a trade name of Houghton Butcher) giving a nominal 90 by 60 mm negatives.

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The camera measures 6 1/4 inches by 3 inches by 1 1/4 inches when closed and opens to 6 1/4 by 3 by 5 inches when open for use. It weighs 545 g without having a film loaded.

The camera is made from pressed mild steel which is covered with black leatherette. The leatherette is embossed with a linear box design On the back is the maker’s name: “Made in England by Houghton-Butcher MFG Co. Ltd. LONDON”. Apart from the embossing, the back has two items. There is a red window (now faded to orange) to allow the user to read frame numbers from the backing paper of the roll of film. This is a full-frame camera so the frame numbers will run from 1 to 8 – eight whole shots on each roll of film. Each frame will be 83 by 55 mm and would have been contacted printed rather than being enlarged.

P1010324 copyAlso on the back is the eyepiece for one of the two viewfinders. This viewfinder is an iconometer – basically a large wire frame to one side of the shutter/lens assembly. This eyepiece slides out of harm’s way when not in use and must be puled out for use. When slid out, there is a 3/4 inch metal strap with a 12.5 by 7 mm hole. (I am mixing my units here as the camera is English so will have been made using Imperial units but I am using SI units for film and image dimensions. I probably should not do this, but what the hell?).

The lens board is opened with a chrome lever which pulls out from the right. This lever doubles as a foot for when the camera is placed on a firm surface when using B or T. The lens board pulls down easily but requires a final firm push down to locate the struts securely. Once the lens board is down, the shutter/lens assembly must be pulled forward. A single central stud is provided for the user to hold. This is made more difficult than it needs to be by the presence of the iconometer frame which folds over the shutter/lens for storage. The iconometer can be hinged out of the way but doing so its still awkward. As you pull the shutter/lens forward, it should locate on the focus scale at the infinity position but the locating lever is missing on my camera. The two holes where this lever should be affixed are clearly visible.

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The shutter/lens assembly is attached to the camera body with the usual folding bellows. These are made from leatherette and appear to be in good, light proof condition.

The shutter/lens housing supports the two viewfinders. The first is the iconometer already mentioned. This consists of a wire frame that is hinged at the left side of the shutter/lens housing (as when using the camera). This iconometer frame measures 3 1/4 by 2 1/4 inches. In use, you pull out the eyepiece – already mentioned – from the slide on the back and fold out the wire frame at the front. I find this iconometer (I have them on several other cameras) very easy to use. Also on the top left of the shutter/lens housing is the second viewfinder – a brilliant finder. This brilliant finder requires you to look down on the viewfinder. The top measures 15 mm square. It is actually in the form of a cross where each arm of the cross measures 15 by 10 mm (in Imperial, 5/8 by 3/8 inches approximately). I find these brilliant finders very hard to use – they are best in bright light. This brilliant finder is on a swivel so that it can be used with the camera in either portrait or landscape orientation.

P1010326 copyThe shutter has no maker’s or model name on it and offers 1/100, 1/50 and 1/25 seconds plus B and T exposures. The shutter speeds are set by a lever which moves around the rim of the housing. this is a rim-set shutter – very state-of-the-art for 1930 – rather than having the older dial-set system. The B stands for Bulb and with this setting the shutter will remain open while the shutter release lever is depressed. The T stands for Time and the shutter will open when the shutter release lever is depressed and will remain open until the shutter release lever is pressed a second time.

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On the top right of the shutter/lens housing is the shutter release lever. This is nickel plated metal. Just above it is a lug with a threaded hole. This is for a standard cable release. At the bottom of the shutter/lens housing is the aperture selector. This has two positions – Ordinary and Very Bright. I have no idea at all as to what these apertures might be expressed in ƒ/numbers.

In the centre of the shutter/lens housing is the lens. This is labelled as a Novo-Ray Objective Lens. There is no indiction of focal length but a normal lens for full-frame 120 film would have 110 mm focal length so I would expect this lens to have a focal length of between 100 and 110 mm.

Below the shutter/lens assembly is a name plate with the legend “The May Fair REGD Camera”.

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The back of the camera opens with a sliding, nickel plated, catch at one end. When opening this, the back comes away in one piece. There is a pencilled number at one end – K34 – which is repeated inside the back of the camera? Is this a serial number? At the other end of the back is an orange label stating “This camera uses the E.20. Ensign film obtainable everywhere”. What is clearly missing here is a pressure plate. There is no provision at all to keep the film flat against the film gate.

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Inside the back of the camera is dominated by the film gate. This measures 83 by 55 mm – the nominal size for a full-frame 120 image is 90 by 60 mm. At either end of the film gate i9s a chrome roller to allow the film to wind without scratching. One of these in my camera has a rusty surface and barely moves.

P1010333 copyAt either end of the the camera is a chamber for the film spools.  There is a spring in the chamber to prevent the film unrolling and becoming loose. The take-up spool goes on the left (the take-up spool is the empty spool from the last roll of film). At the bottom of this chamber is another hinged stud, butat the top is the winding key. This last must be pulled up to allow the empty take-up spool to be fitted. The take-up spool is wound by a knob on the outside which can only be turned clockwise. Not being Japanese, there are no foam light seals to worry about, light tightness being achieved by deep flanges.


Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 50 years photography experience.

7 thoughts on “May Fair folding camera”

  1. What a wonderful find! There were all sorts of “cigarette premiums” offered by various companies from the 1920s to the 1960s, purchased by saving various forms of coupons in the packs. All of them had about the same quality as this camera: as cheap a product as possible so as to not eat into the profits. The idea was to keep customers buying the brand. 😀


  2. Might you know how much tobacco products one would have to buy in order to get this camera at the time it was offered?


  3. I have just bought exactly this model for £22 do you think that was a good price? Thanks for detailed description!


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