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Even if you don’t know about George Eastman, you participate in his legacy. He made it possible to document the world around us—at the push of a button. You can trace his work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to photography and cinema becoming part of our everyday lives.
George Eastman was an innovator, a generous spirit, who was constantly pursuing progress—spending his life improving his ideas, his business, his community, and the world.
In the mid-1800s, making a photograph was very difficult. Photography was an exciting new medium, but, like many technologies when first introduced, it was expensive and required special knowledge and equipment. Making a photograph required being some combination of a chemist, a mechanical engineer, and a painter.
In the 1870s, George Eastman, then a 23-year-old bank clerk, discovered firsthand how complicated the process was. “There must be an easier way,” he thought. So young George set out to make photography easy and affordable enough for anyone. And he started out by experimenting in his free time (actually, all his free time), using the kitchen in his mother’s house as a makeshift laboratory.
Eastman fundamentally changed photography—not just as a process, but as a business. His big idea was that you shouldn’t have to be an expert to make photographs; it should be easy! With the Kodak camera, created in 1888, you would take your photographs and then mail the entire camera back to the company in Rochester. Within weeks, your prints would be sent to you, along with your Kodak—loaded with fresh film. Soon, the company introduced film cartridges so that you didn’t even need to part with your camera.
For the first time, nonprofessionals, everyday people, could make a record of their lives and surroundings, their vacations and their family milestones, and then get those memories back in the form of photographic prints. A huge change in our culture.
Eventually, Eastman’s endeavor grew from his mother’s kitchen, to a small factory in downtown Rochester, to a global enterprise. In the twentieth century, “Kodak” became synonymous around the world with photography itself.
At home, Eastman valued both his privacy and his role as a gracious host. His estate reflects his interests and his personality: Gardens, designed for their beauty and as backdrops for photography and motion pictures; spacious rooms for entertaining guests and welcoming family; a library for quiet relaxation and a billiard room for leisure; a pipe organ to fill the entire house with music.
Every aspect of his 10-acre estate reflects his desire for ingenuity. Eastman filled his home with the latest inventions and clever conveniences: a central vacuum, synchronized clocks, fire doors, and pulley systems to move furniture. And the land was brimming with life. Flower beds and vegetable gardens, orchards and greenhouses, and cows and chickens provided fresh flowers, produce, dairy, and eggs.
Never satisfied with the status quo, he tinkered and tested in all areas of his life—everything from cutting his mansion in half to add just 9 feet 4 inches to the conservatory, to perfecting his lemon meringue pie recipe.
George Eastman left an indelible mark in Rochester and around the world. He was a savvy businessman and offered his employees benefits that were not common at the time: profit-sharing, a welfare fund, paid sick leave, healthcare, and a credit union.
Remembering his own humble beginnings, he helped to establish a central community charity fund to help those in need. He donated a great portion of his wealth during his lifetime to help support and establish universities and technical institutes, medical schools and dental clinics, public parks and a symphony orchestra.
Upon his death in 1932, Eastman donated nearly everything he had, including his mansion and its property, to the University of Rochester. And in 1947, the university contributed Eastman’s beloved estate to an organization newly founded to celebrate his legacy by sharing photography and cinema with the world. The museum opened to the public in 1949.
George Eastman sought to make the camera as convenient as the pencil. Today, when you take and share a photo, or when you watch a movie, you, too, are participating in his legacy.