Polaroid and the Land Camera

On this day in 1948, the Land Camera first went on sale. Developed by the Polaroid Corporation, and named for its co-founder Edwin H. Land, this mechanism was the first of its kind—a camera with instant film.

Polaroid Land Camera Catalog (cover)Polaroid Land Camera Catalog (fold-out)

Polaroid Land Camera Catalog (price list)

Images from a Polaroid Land Camera catalog, ca. 1950s

Polaroid was co-founded in 1937 by scientist and inventor Edwin H. Land and Harvard physics professor George W. Wheelwright III. The company was originally known for its polarizing sunglasses, a product Land had invented following his self-guided research in light polarization. The name “Polaroid” was coined by Professor Clarence Kennedy of Smith College, a mutual friend of Land and Wheelwright.


Advertisement for Polaroid “sun goggles” and sunglasses appearing in the Cambridge Chronicle, 11 July 1940


Pair of Polaroid sunglasses from the CHC Objects Collection with case and informational insert, ca. 1930s-1940s

Land studied chemistry at Harvard but left without a degree and moved to New York City in the late 1920s. Without the backing of an educational institution and laboratory, he invented a system of instant in-camera photography—Polaroid film.


Land, shown here with an early instant photograph, first demonstrated Polaroid’s instant photography system to the public in 1947. Bettman/CORBIS

The Land Camera was constructed in a similar way to traditional film cameras: light entered a lens and was reflected onto light-sensitive film, recording a negative image. Where the system differed was in its delivery of the print. Land’s system contained both the negative film and a positive receiving sheet joined by a reservoir. This pack held a small amount of chemical reagents that started and stopped film development. Rather than sending the exposed film off to a laboratory to be developed, consumers could produce a developed photograph in one minute or less.

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Edwin Land at the Polaroid Corporation in 1940

Polaroid originally manufactured sixty units of the Land Camera to be sold during the 1948 holiday season. Fifty-seven were put up for sale at the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston, all of which were sold on the first day.


Christmas decorations on Jordan Marsh store, photographed by Leslie Jones, December 1957. (Boston Public Library Print Department © Leslie Jones)

Land ran the company successfully until the late 1970s. Land died on March 1, 1991 in Cambridge and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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The Polaroid building at 784 Memorial Drive, originally built for the B B Chemical Company in  1938, was occupied by Polaroid from 1966-1996.

For more information on Polaroid or Edwin Land in Cambridge, contact the CHC at histcomm@cambridgema.gov.


“Invention of Polaroid Instant Photography.” Edwin Land and Polaroid Photography. 2015. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/land-instant-photography.html#invention_of_instant_photography.
American Chemical Society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks program.


Meigs Elevated Railway

An unusual and widely unknown transit experiment took place right here in Cambridge, known as the Meigs Elevated Railway. Born in Tennessee in 1840, Josiah Vincent Meigs was an inventor; spending most of his life inventing and patenting devices from furniture to guns. Throughout his life, he was interested in making public transportation better and more efficient and wanted to remove the “clutter” of elevated railways in cities. From this, he came up with his proposal, the Meigs Elevated Railway.

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With an emphasis on safety, comfort and convenience, the track structure consisted of two rails, one mounted above the other on a line of supports. The single post system would remove roughly four fifths of the structure that darkened streets under other elevated systems of the time. One pair of wheels were angled at 45 degrees and carried the weight of the train; while the other pair, mounted horizontally inside the locomotive, gripped the upper rail and provided driving power. The cars were designed cylindrical to diminish wind resistance and the interiors lined with fireproof material.

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In 1881, to encourage capital investment and fulfill terms of an earlier charter (which had over 64,000 signatures), Meigs and his friends headquartered at 225 Bridge Street (now Monsignor O’Brien Hwy) and raised $200,000 to build an experimental track. A 227’ line of elevated track was built parallel to Bridge Street with varied elevation changes and curves to test the new system. In 1886, engineers deemed the elevated system “practical and safe”.

Meigs Elevated_Rail Detail and House005

Sadly, it was neither capital nor legislation which finally sank the Meigs Elevated, it was the coming of electricity. While the Meigs system could be fitted to run on electrical power, Josiah believed that electric-powered trains were too expensive and could not provide the speed the system needed. Further setbacks occurred when vandalism and the West End Elevated Railway became direct competition and the Meigs took its final run in 1894. Meigs later sold his charter rights in 1896 and his dreams for were disbanded. In failing health from his Civil War injuries, Josiah Vincent Meigs died from a stroke on November 14, 1907 in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

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Much more information and photographs are in our collections!


Focus On: CHC Volunteers

We are back with the latest installment of our blog series on the wonderful CHC volunteers. Today we would like you to meet volunteer (and former staff and Commission member) Allison Crump.


How long have you been with the Cambridge Historical Commission?

I came to the Commission as an Audubon summer intern in 1975, while attending the Columbia Preservation program.  After graduation, I joined the staff for several years.  Later I was an appointed member of the Commission for 20 years.  Now I’m retired, I’m back to my roots!

What collection have you been working on? Tell us more about it.

The City Clerk’s archives include several boxes of applications to the Cambridge City Council for permission to move structures, which was once a common practice.  The applications I am working with date from 1870 – 1910; these are the ones we have found, but there may well be more. [Editor’s note: We are calling this the Building Removals Collection. Allison has been going through the applications in search of the original and subsequent – post-move – locations of these structures.]



A building removal form for a property at Broadway and Main, 1888

What is the importance of the Building Removals Collection?

When I am successful at determining the original and subsequent locations, it’s a view into development patterns, as demands for more modern, larger structures in high-value locations created surplus structures available for re-use in various ways, often in areas newly subdivided for development.

What’s challenging is that descriptions of the sites are not always precise, and even when street numbers are used, these have often changed over time.  In some cases, approved removals appear to have never occurred, or were subject to multiple applications as proposed routes or locations shifted.  Another interesting aspect is the activity of specific moving firms at different periods.

It’s most satisfying when the survey files have speculated that a building was moved to its current location, and the removal files tie it to an original site.


Example of a completed building removal research form (completed by a former CHC staff member)

What is your academic and career background?

In undergrad, I majored in history and art history, specializing in architectural history.  After Columbia and working at the Commission, I gradually migrated into affordable housing and nonprofit finance as my professional focus.  It’s fun to be back in the research game.

How long have you lived in Cambridge?

Over 40 years.  But I’m still a newcomer, and would never presume to describe this as my hometown.  My kid’s a native, though, so that gives me some standing.

What is your favorite thing about historic preservation? (or, your favorite building in Cambridge?)

I’m most interested in the flexibility of structures to adapt to changing needs over time.  That makes it possible to maintain continuity and context in the built environment, even when their original purpose has been superseded.  It’s also deeply satisfying to witness the extent to which preservation values have become accepted and see individual buildings, streets and neighborhoods which once seemed doomed, now in good repair and no longer threatened.  The block of Broadway between Prospect and Inman Streets is a great example of this phenomenon.


Thank you, Allison!