A big deal: Reflecting on the significance and history of the Rolleiflex

I’ve been working on a review of my Rolleiflex Automat MX for months now, and at some point, I’ll finish it up. But in researching the history and origins of my own camera, I’ve become fascinated with (and derailed by) some of the history of the Rolleiflex itself, and just how significant the camera actually was (and is).

My camera was made in 1951, and assuming that production volumes month-to-month were fairly consistent, my educated guess is that mine was made in August of that year. It doesn’t really matter in the end, of course, I just find it interesting to ponder the sort of environment in which my camera might have been made. But that is in itself why I started thinking a little more deeply about the subject.

I’m no history buff, especially World War II history, but it was interesting to try and understand the broader context of what it was like when my camera was made. The war had ended roughly six years prior, and six years isn’t a long time. But Germany was also at the very center of ongoing political wrangling, and the aftereffects of the war; East Germany had been officially founded out of the Soviet occupation zone, just two years prior to when my camera was made.

Franke & Heidecke, the company behind the Rolleiflex, and the city of Braunschweig where the company was based were in the British occupation zone — part of what would eventually become West Germany. By 1951, the company had no doubt gotten past repairing the reported 65% of the factory and equipment that had been destroyed by wartime bombing runs. But there’s little doubt that a drive or a walk around Braunschweig would have revealed lingering physical evidence of the war.

Certainly for its residents, the other aspects of spending years at war would be lingering as well. The unprecedented numbers of civilian war casualties from World War II, not to mention the ongoing political machinations, split-up families and no doubt left deep emotional scars on those who weathered the storm.

During the war itself, like most German industry, Franke & Heidecke was required to produce equipment important to the war effort. But with trade impossible with enemy states, and trading with neutral countries made difficult, for all intents and purposes, the venerable Rolleiflex was all but unavailable on the world market, and in North America, used Rolleis were the only option.

Once the war concluded, the Allies reportedly wanted to restore the country’s industry as quickly as possible, and that included Franke & Heidecke. While the company’s 1945 output was apparently delivered in full to the British Ministry of Defence, by the time Spring 1947 arrived, Rolleiflex and Rolleicord cameras were once again making their way to the west in limited quantities.

The Sunday, March 30, 1947 issue of the New York Times had an article heralding the return of the camera. Under the headline Rolleiflex Returns: First Post-War Shipments of Twin-Lens Camera, writer and Times camera editor Jacob Deschin opened the piece by saying:

The arrival here last week from Germany of the first shipment of Automatic Rolleiflex and Rolleicord twin-lens reflex cameras since the start of the war relieved a critical camera shortage.

Later in the piece, he writes:

The first shipment contained 1,000 cameras, which is “just a drop in the bucket” compared with demand, according to Saul Bauer of the importing company. […] Once a beggar for favor among American photographers, with the importer having trouble selling as many as three a year, the popularity of the Rolleiflex reached a peak just before the war.

The article goes on to talk about some of the cameras’ attributes, and its popularity among professionals and “advanced amateurs.”

What is particularly interesting to note is the cost of these cameras. Here are two advertisements from the same issue of the Times:

I like that; “Guaranteed brand new!” the ad proclaims, as does the following one, making it clear that one no longer had to settle for a used Rollei:

The Rolleiflex Automat was going for $300, and the Rolleicord II A for $165. (All prices are US dollars.)

Let’s put that into perspective for a moment. Considering the rate of inflation, in today’s dollars, the Rolleiflex Automat was $3,460, and the Rolleicord was $1,900. Ponder that for a moment, will you?

To be sure, today’s high-end digital cameras, with lenses, cost far more than that, comparing apples to applies in 2019 dollars, especially if we’re talking medium format digital cameras. But still, I have to be honest… I’d have a very, very hard time justifying the spending of nearly $3,500 today on a new camera of any type, style or kind. I love photography, but that’s a lot of money, and out of my budget. It does, however, have the effect of conveying just how sophisticated these cameras were, and how it must have felt to people who were ponying-up the cash at the time to buy them.

In short, it was a huge investment, no doubt particularly in the post-war economy of the United States, and it must certainly have felt like a very big deal to own one of these venerated cameras that had just returned to the global market.

To be sure, there’s no question that with this historical context in-mind, when I pick-up my own Rolleiflex, it feels all the more special.