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Polaroid Swinger 20 instant camera - 1965-68

Polaroid Swinger 20 instant camera, 1966-68
Polaroid Swinger 20 instant camera, 1965-68

In the 1960s there were no smart phones for instant pictures. People sent a roll of film off for developing and waited for their holiday snaps to return in the post. Polaroid introduced the first instant camera, the Model 95, in 1948. Most people found them expensive and complicated.

Less than twenty years later, Polaroid launched a camera that would be on every US teenager's Christmas list. A combination of a fun concept, an easy-to-use camera and saturation marketing made the Polaroid Swinger 20 almost as popular as the transistor radio.

Teenagers liked instant pictures. They could see photos of their friends straight away. Waiting for the snaps to come back in the post was a drag. It was possible to take primative selfies with an after-market attachment made by Kalimer. It encorporated a self-timer and shutter-release adapter and sold for $5.95.

The Swinger had a plastic strap that you could use to hang it from your wrist or from the handlebars of your bike. The strap made it literally swing.

The word, 'swinger' was in common parlance in the 1960s for someone who was up with the latest fashions. It also meant a person with several sexual partners. This might have helped the appeal by making it seem a bit naughty and was probably known to Polaroid's marketeers.

The '20' designation could have referred to both the film it took, Polaroid's Type 20, or to the price, which was below $20, $19.95 in fact.

Polaroid aimed the camera at the teenage market from the start. In the US they advertised in youth magazines such as Boys' Life. They ran TV ads in the commercial breaks between popular children's television shows such as Batman, Daniel Boone and the Flintstones. [1]

The Swinger 20 was Polaroid's first mass-market camera. It was a huge success. It conquered Canada and the UK. But it failed to catch on in France.

Polaroid first launched the Swinger 20 in Canada not in the USA. It was priced at Can$24.95, in July 1965. They planned the US launch for the fall of 1965.

The public's response exceeded all expectations. There was a huge pent-up demand for an easy-to-use instant camera at a cheap price. The first shipment of 10,000 sold out in three days. [2] Polaroid had to limit further shipments to dealers.

Polaroid wanted to get the camera into non-traditional outlets such as drugstores and general stores in holiday resorts. Many people can remember seeing polaroid film in chemists and in campsite stores. This stategy helped Polaroid's US market share rocket from 11% to 33% in 1966.[1]

The broad appeal lay in the camera's simplicity, as well as the price. The user only had to remember red, white and blue to use the camera.

They looked through the viewfinder to compose the picture, then squeezed and twisted a red knob until the word 'YES' appeared. They then pressed a white button to take the picture. Finally, the user pressed blue button on the back of the camera to release the instant film. It took ten seconds to process the picture. Not as easy as digital, but not bad for 1965.

Polaroid's engineers achieved this simple operation with some design tricks.

There was only one shutter speed 1/200 second. Exposure was by aperture only. The Polaroid film was 3000 ASA so the aperture corresponding to 1/200 second was very small. The apertures selected by the red knob ranged from f96 to f17. This meant incredible depth of field. Anything up to two feet away would be in focus. So there was no need to worry about focusing. [3]

Of course, the Swinger 20 was not ideal for creative shots. Almost all of the picture would be in focus.

Remarkably there was no selenium exposure meter. Instead the camera used a clever system involving a bulb and screen. When you squeezed the red knob it switched a tiny bulb on. When you turned it, the aperture changed. This varied the amount of light entering the camera. A prism refracted the light onto an exposure screen below the view finder. On the lens side of this screen the word 'YES' was painted in black. On the other side, the bulb side, the word 'NO' was painted in white together with a checkerboard of white squares. On the eyepiece end of the viewfinder was a red filter.

If there wasn't enought light entering the camera, the light from the bulb dominated. When you looked through the viewfinder, you saw the word 'NO' in white and the white and red checkerboard.

When there was too much light coming into the camera, the screen was in silhoutte and you could see a black 'NO'. When there was just enough light, the two effects cancelled each other out, the 'NO' disappeared, leaving the word 'YES' visible.

If the camera said 'NO' with any amount of light, you had to use a flash and twist the same red knob for the right distance.

The big disadvantage of this system is that as the battery aged, the light from the bulb became weaker, so 'YES' appeared at a lower light level than intended. Meaning the film was underexposed. The same effect would happen as the bulb aged too.

The Swinger 20 only took black and white film which cost $2 for a roll. At that price pictures were twice as much per print as with a conventional camera.

Polaroid launched the camera in the UK in 1966, at £9 19s and 6d.

It was just as much a success as in the US. Dixons sold the Swinger 20 until 1968, when Polaroid replaced it with the Swinger II.

Polaroid tried to conquer the French market with the Swinger 20, but failed dismally. They used similar advertising and a price of 99 Francs. But the French had never seen instant cameras before and did not understand the concept.

Polaroid cameras and crime

A kidnapper put a Polaroid Swinger to a more sinister use. He used the camera to photograph the victim and a ring on her finger to prove to the girl's father that he was the kidnapper.

The FBI later recovered the camera and was able to use torn edge of the last picture to match up with the remains of the film in the camera. According to the FBI this was only possible because it was the last film on the roll. Polaroid cameras did not leave identifying marks on films. With traditional cameras it is often possible to prove that a particular camera took a particular photograph. [4]

Polaroid Swinger 20 - data


[1] 'The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography', Peter Buse, published in 2006 by University of Chicago Press, by pages 30-33

[2] 'A Polaroid Camera', published in Which?, The Consumers' Association Magazine, June 1966, page 195

[3] '$20 Land Camera', published in the New York Times, 18 July 1965

[4] 'Laboratory Examination of Photo Related Evidence' published in FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1972, page 11

See also 'Popular Science', August 1965, page 78 for a detailed explanation of how the exposure system worked.

By Steven Braggs, June 2023

See also

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

Mid Century ★ Facts & Figures ★ Collectibles

Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

★ Mid Century ★ Facts & Figures ★ Collectibles ★