Elgin Laboratories / Utility MFG Co. / Spartus Corp., 711-15 W. Lake Street, Chicago, IL
The Elgin Miniature Camera is part of the infamous family of bakelite minicams produced out of the same Lake Street factory in the late ’30s and 1940s. These cheap-o “candid type” cameras were marketed under literally dozens of different brand names AND manufacturer names, with no rhyme or reason as to which name would appear on which model type. The motivations behind this strategy are quite interesting, as so is the man behind the business: former big band jazz drummer Jack Galter. You can read about the full history of the “Chicago Cluster” of cameras on our main Spartus Camera Corp. page.
This Elgin camera, meanwhile, is a great “Exhibit A,” if you will, of Jack Galter’s willingness to bend the rules of brand names and trademarks. The mold/design of this camera is 100% identical to minicams attributed to “DeLuxe Products Co.,” “General Products Co.,” and “Metropolitan Industries.” This one, however, gets its own interesting designation: the Elgin Miniature by “Elgin Laboratories.” Ooooh, an honest-to-gosh laboratory was involved! Sounds so very reputable.
Actually, come to think of it, the name Elgin sounds trustworthy, too. Ah, I know why! During the same period this camera was made, the Elgin National Watch Company, headquartered just outside of Chicago, was one of the leading timekeeper manufacturers in the country. Jack Galter was intentionally using the Elgin name, along with names like Remington, Underwood, and others, to plant a seed of familiarity in potential camera buyers. It was an obvious enough scheme that Galter was called to court on it more than once, and many brands were quickly scrapped shortly after their release. Elgin was one of them, as a court ordered Galter to stop using the Elgin name on his lines of cameras and electric razors in 1939. He eventually complied.
There was also a case in 1939 of Elgin Laboratories actually taking another company to court: New York’s Utility MFG Co. For whatever reason, Galter chose Elgin Labs as his company name du jour when accusing Utility MFG of unfair trade practices–i.e., sending a salesman from NYC to Chicago to sell Galter-style cheap cameras on enemy turf. I’m not sure how that case panned out, but within a year or so, the Utility MFG Co. had somehow been absorbed into Galter’s Chicago Cluster, with all its established New York brands, like the Falcon, joining the fold. Maybe Utility MFG had genuinely copied Galter’s camera patent and paid the price by surrendering to his control. Or maybe he just bought them out for fun. Either way, the Utility-Spartus-Elgin-Monarch-etc-etc web of confusion continues to stump camera collectors more than 75 years later.
The Elgin is one of many “Chicago Cluster” cameras in our museum collection: