The first American made camera to utilize 35mm film was the Argus A in 1936; two years after Eastman Kodak introduced the format with its Retina line of cameras. The Retinas however were manufactured in Germany , and with a price tag of over fifty dollars, unattainable by most depression era amateur photographers. The Argus A broke the economic barrier selling for only ten to twelve dollars. A major accomplishment for a small, simple Bakelite and steel camera made by the International Research Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan which would become the Argus Camera Company. The future of the new 35mm format was now set. Due to the enormous popularity of the inexpensive and functionally accessible Argus A (2 million units sold over its production life) 35mm is still the standard format for nearly all snap-shot, amateur and photojournalist photography some sixty years later. Their follow-up the C3 was named the “Great American Camera” by the Smithsonian Institute. Argus is still making cameras today, affordable point-and-shoot and digital models.
For its day the Argus A had the common range of aperture and shutter settings. Apertures ranged from f/4.5 to f/11 with shutter speeds of 25, 50, 100, 200 plus B and T for long exposures. More than adequate for today’s well lit situations using ISO 100 or 400 film. According to the model number, my particular camera was probably manufactured around 1937 or 38 and included the aluminum back instead of steel and a tripod mount. Once the lens is pulled out from its storage position there are two focus ranges available. As the lens is rotated it locks into place, this is the close range of 6 to 18 feet. Turn it again about thirty degrees (unlocked) and the focus range is 18 feet to infinity. The shutter release on the side of the lens barrel is self cocking, so lifting it up readies the shutter, depressing it fires the shutter. The cool, art deco, aluminum back is completely removable for easy film loading and allows the camera to be attached to the special enlarger that Argus marketed at the time. This allowed the photographer to save money by using the camera as the enlarger lens. The enlarger can still be found on EBay from time to time.
Many other models were introduced during its production life, including the AF which includes a full focusing range, A2B with extinction meter, AA with flash sync, A2F and FA. Most include a similar 50mm f4.5 lens. The B which was produced in 1937 only featured a 50mm f2.9 lens. Shutter speeds didn’t change much over its production life nor did the Bakelite body construction. Grey, Brown and Olive colored versions were also available.
CLEANING AND REPAIR
Bakelite cameras hold up well over the years and are easy to clean. The Argus A can be cleaned up with just Windex and a metal polish of some kind, I use M.A.A.S. The uncoated lens (triple) can be cleaned using the Windex, but if there is fungus or haze present use a 50/50 solution of ammonia and hydrogen peroxide to remove it. The front element can be removed by simply unscrewing it from the front of the lens barrel and the third element can be unscrewed from inside the camera. With the elements removed flood the shutter assembly with Rosonal lighter fluid and work the shutter at all speeds. The shutter speed dial on the front of the camera was very stiff when I got it, but the lighter fluid returned its smooth movement. While the shutter assembly airs out and dries, use the metal polish to clean up the lens barrel, mounting plate, dials and the removable back. There was a lot of tarnish filling up the engraved letters on the front of the barrel, but the metal polish and some elbow grease brought them back to life and can now be read quite clear. The inside of the back has a glued down pressure plate. Later models had the spring-back plate. A thin length of spongy material is also glued to the inside of the back to keep the film in place; luckily this is still in good shape. Usually it is dry and brittle, or gone completely. Cut a piece of thick mouse pad as a replacement if necessary. This particular camera has seen some use and sadly the art deco back is a bit scarred, but aside from that and some brassing the camera cleaned up well and is quite usable.
Like the Argus C3, the Argus A rangefinder is very common on the ‘bay. Many versions were produced of this simple rangefinder, but the basic model with viewfinder and scale focusing seems to be the most common. Other models include the AF with the full focusing lens, A2B with focusing and extinction meter, AA and FA models had flash sync. Average auction price for a basic Argus A is around 8-10 dollars, although there are so many auctions that 2-5 dollars isn’t out of the ordinary as you might find yourself as the only bidder. But I’ve also seen some auctions end at 30-40 dollars. Olive or other colored models fetch higher prices. Argus cameras for some reason have quite a price range. They are easy to repair and clean so if you tinker don’t spend a premium on a ‘pristine’ version a less than perfect model can be found for significantly less and work just as well. Shipping shouldn’t be more than 8-10 dollars. Several auctions also include cases.