It's not a very impressive photograph — black and white, extra small (2 ¼ by 3 ¼) and featuring four females scowling into the sun — but it's one of the few I'd try to save in the event of flood, fire or earthquake.
The oldest subject, an octogenarian without a single gray hair, is posing rigidly in her stylish summer dress with two strands of pearls hugging her neck. She is resolvedly clutching a dark leather purse at waist level.
To her left, a woman in her early 50s is clad in a plain, mid-calf-length frock that might have been popular a decade earlier. Her thin brown hair is pulled off her pale face by a couple of bobby pins, and her sensible white shoes indicate it's well before Labor Day.
A 30-something woman, her fashionable flowered skirt parachuting over the lower half of her body as she squats down to toddler level, occupies the center of the frame. She is attempting to restrain a 4-year-old decked out in overalls and flimsy sandals with white ankle socks. The tabby kitten the child has grasped in a determined death grip suggests a possible motive for her ongoing attempt to flee the scene.
The photo was taken with my father's new Kodak Six-20 folding Brownie. Well more than 300,000 of these pocket-size cameras with an imitation Moroccan leather cover would be purchased between 1948 and 1954. The snapshot's value to me, however, is that it preserves for posterity the last time my great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and I were gathered in the same place.
The Brownie, now recognized as the camera that democratized photography, was no accident. George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, challenged employee Frank Brownell to come up with a camera design that would appeal to the yet untapped market of amateur (including children) photographers.
It was to be priced as inexpensively as possible yet capable of producing consistently satisfactory results.
The major source of this savvy entrepreneur's profits, you see, was film. The more Americans he could persuade to take up photography, the more rolls of film Kodak could sell.
The first Brownie, priced at a democratic dollar, went on the market in February 1900. Kodak sold 250,000 cameras the first year and countless millions during the next eight decades.
Of course, mass production and the use of such inexpensive materials as cardboard and wood contributed heavily to keeping the price tag low.
What made these box cameras fly off the shelves, however, were such modern marketing techniques as employing the image of Palmer Cox's wildly popular "Brownie" cartoon characters (think: the Scottish equivalent of an Irish leprechaun) as well as the clever slogan "You push the button, we do the rest."
For 15 cents, a Brownie camera owner could cart home a six-exposure film cartridge that not only could be loaded in daylight but could also be dropped off for processing — no pricey darkroom equipment required. Within days, he could amaze and amuse his friends with six snazzy snapshots of whatever he wished.
Before immigrating to America from Lithuania, my great-grandmother had only been photographed once in her life — preserved in a sepia-toned wedding portrait of two stiffly posed, unsmiling figures that cost her husband a month's pay.
After my grandmother was born, however, ordinary folks were getting busy documenting their family histories in photo albums and as sociologists, historians and popular culture scholars quickly discovered, documenting American history as well.
President Grover Cleveland was the proud owner of a Brownie as was the Dalai Lama, who packed his in his luggage before departing Tibet.
Ansel Adams, who wrote, "I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite," took his first photographs of the iconic scenery with a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie.
But with all new technology comes the potential for abuse and the Brownie proved no exception.
"Camera fiends," attempting to catch female bathers unaware, prompted signs forbidding (specifically) Kodaks on beaches. Brownies were also banned at art museums, the Washington Monument and on streets of such municipalities as Hartford, Connecticut, where the Hartford Courant lamented, "the sedate citizen can't indulge in any hilariousness without the risk of being caught in the act."
My mother was born two years too early to cash in on Kodak's 50th anniversary giveaway. In 1930, some 500,000 12-year-olds collected complimentary Brownies.
The family considers it a blessing, however, since my mother regularly cut off her subjects' heads whenever she got behind a camera lens.
I realize that, these days, if I dispatch a photograph to "the cloud," it shall remain forever present in digitized form. But it's just not the same as the glossy snapshot that initially prompted my great grandmother to exclaim, "Kas jie galvoja apie kitas." That's Lithuanian for "What will they think of next?"