Polaroid Corporation records, series X: Polaroid photograph and visual materials collection
The collection documents the progression of the photographic processes and film research and development efforts of the Polaroid Corporation beginning in the late 1930s and ending in the 1980s.
- circa 1930s-1990s and undated
- Polaroid Corporation (Organization)
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research. Materials stored onsite. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information regarding access procedures.
Extent653 linear feet (919 boxes, 4 cartons, 12 volumes, 29 oversize folders)
The nearly 227,000 photographs, negatives, slides, and transparencies in this collection document the progression of the photographic processes and film research and development efforts of the Polaroid Corporation beginning in the late 1930s and ending in the 1980s. The materials in the collection are the direct output of the continuously evolving research efforts of the lab personnel and engineers at Polaroid. As part of this effort, in order to achieve its efforts to develop and perfect the first black and white instant photography and later color photography, the company enlisted its staff and both amateur and professional photographers to take photographs to test their products, such as film, as it moved out of research and development and eventually into the hands of consumers. The end result of these efforts is a rich collection of materials that not only documents the history of the Polaroid Corporation, but also provides insight into how the organization utilized amateur and professional photographers to simultaneously test and promote their products. The collection is grouped into five series: Experimental photographs, Test photographs, General photographs, Work for hire photographs, and Vectograph materials.
Biographical / Historical
The Polaroid Corporation was an iconic, 20th century company whose pioneering achievements in optics and engineering continue to have technological, social and artistic significance. The beginnings of the Polaroid Corporation can be traced to Edwin H. Land’s breakthrough research on polarizers. After a leave of absence from Harvard College in 1926 to study the development of a synthetic light-polarizing material, Land returned to Harvard in 1929 and continued his research in the Harvard Physics Department. There he met physics instructor George W. Wheelwright III, who provided Land with a laboratory to conduct his research. In 1932, Land presented a paper on his synthetic polarizing materials and Wheelwright convinced him to leave college before graduating to start a company together. Land-Wheelwright Laboratories was formed in 1933 and Land received his first of many patents for “Polarizing Refracting Bodies.”
Over the next several years Land and Wheelwright set up operations to manufacture an inexpensive plastic sheet polarizer. At the end of 1935, the first advertisement of the material appeared in a scientific journal, followed by a public announcement in New York. Demand for the product grew quickly and in 1937, Land-Wheelwright Laboratories was reincorporated as the Polaroid Corporation. Wheelwright left the company in the early 1940s, but stayed on as a member of the Board of Directors until 1948. Following the outbreak of World War II, the company’s activities were largely directed to invention, development and manufacture of war products, materials and devices. Research projects were conducted under direct contracts with Navy Bureaus, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and other agencies of the government. During this time, the number of employees increased from 200 to a wartime peak of 1,250. After the war ended, Polaroid was faced with a reconversion task of considerable magnitude which brought new organizational and technical skills gained from its wartime experience. In addition to Polaroid Day Glasses and Polarscreen Camera filters, uses for Polaroid polarized materials included glare-free lamps and airplane windows. Strong sales enabled the company to fund further research and development in other areas including 3-D motion picture film, vectographs, and the subsequent breakthrough with instant photography in 1947.
Land’s landmark introduction of the concept of instant photography at a meeting of the Optical Society of America in New York City instantly changed photography and the company itself. In 1948, the Polaroid Land Camera, Model 95, and Land film, Type 40 was introduced to the public and through orchestrated marketing was a sellout. Edwin Land remained dedicated to creating a transformative photographic process and over the next three decades Polaroid developed dozens of new cameras, films, and products. Major innovations from the 1950s to the 1970s included the Polaroid Transparency System (1957), ID-2 Identification System (1966), the SX-70 (1972), and the Polavision Land System (1978).
During this time Land also approached the welfare of his employees in deeply humanistic ways, creating a culture of innovation and exploration within Polaroid that spurred research and experimentation. He tapped into the talented pool of researchers at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Smith College, and routinely employed women in top-level research positions, an unusual practice at the time.
After Land left the company in 1982, Polaroid continued to develop new products for various markets. In 2001, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy protection and the brand name continues to be used to license and market various electronics.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Gift of Polaroid Corporation, 2006, 2008.
Processed: June 2019 By: Nicole Critchley, Mary Samouelian, and Milo Carpenter
Due to the large physical size of the Polaroid Corporation records, similar records that are related as a result of being created, received, or used in the same activity have been grouped into series and an individual finding aid created for each. Each series has been assigned a roman numeral which is found in the series title and precedes all container identifiers. The order of the series does not reflect the original arrangement of the entire collection. Researchers should take care to note the full item number when requesting or citing Polaroid Corporation collection materials.
- Baker Library
- Description rules
- Language of description
- EAD ID
Part of the Baker Library Special Collections, Harvard Business School, Harvard University Repository
Baker Library Special Collections holds unique resources that focus on the evolution of business and industry, as well as the records of the Harvard Business School, documenting the institution's development over the last century. These rich and varied collections support research in a diverse range of fields such as business, economic, social and cultural history as well as the history of science and technology.
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