One of the founding fathers of flash photography and cinema lighting
James H. Smith & Sons, known today as Smith-Victor was born in the late 1800’s, when James H. Smith, just mustered out of the Union army after serving 3 years with the Army of the Potomac, took an interest in the art of photography. After a brief apprenticeship to a photographer in Illinois, he bought a half interest in a photo studio and, within the year, the other half. Over the next 12-13 years, James H. prospered as a professional photographer.
By the 1870’s, however, his efforts were focusing more and more on the “tools of the trade”, and James H. Smith launched his business inventing and manufacturing photographic accessories, such as camera stands, posing stools, burnishers and darkroom equipment (most of which we still carry today). He moved his family and his business to the growing town of Chicago, Illinois, and continued to market his own products as well as buying and marketing others’ patents. His products became widely known and he became an industry leader, serving as Secretary of the Photographic Merchant’s Association.
A turning point faced James H. Smith in 1901, when major fires in two successive years wiped out his business. At the age of 64, he found himself facing bankruptcy. But rather than retiring at that point, he used this time as an opportunity to experiment with new formulas for Flash Powder. And when he succeeded in hitting on a formula that was 24 times brighter than the leading flash powder of the day, he named it “Victor” – the name that’s stayed with the company to this day.
The newly revitalized company was built around Victor powder and the apparatus to use it, and incorporated in 1909 as James H. Smith & Sons Corp. With the main facilities still in Chicago, they built a plant in the nearby town of Griffith, Indiana for the production of their volatile product flash powder. That first plant was lost in an explosion that resulted in the company’s first and only fatality, Mr. Henry Plough. The plant was soon thereafter re-built on the site the company occupies today.
James H. Smith & Sons Corp. worked aggressively to make indoor photography easier and more appealing. Their flash cabinets fired pre-measured charges of powder in rapid succession and contained and cleared any smoke that resulted from the flash. They were beautifully constructed cabinets of mahogany-finished birchwood veneer, with plated metal fixtures. For “location work” there were Portable Flash Bags. The evenness of the lighting and the sharpness of the photos used in the advertising pieces are remarkable even today.
In the late 1920’s flash bulbs began to emerge as the next photo lighting technology and for a few years James H. Smith & Sons had lamps made exclusively for them by the Kentucky Lamp Company, till the major lamp companies flexed their muscles and the smaller companies were forced out of this growing business. Flash synchronizers were also an important product for the company for many years. In the early days of photography, all you needed to do when taking flash photos was open the shutter, leave it open while you fired the flash, and then close the shutter at your leisure. As films became more sensitive, this method began to reveal “ghost” images on the negatives, exposed by just the ambient light before and after the flash. The early synchronizers were mechanisms that linked the shutter and the light source for the first time, causing the powder or bulb to fire just as the shutter opened and closed. Eventually, they became incorporated into cameras, and another lucrative product had run its course.
Technology was beginning to change at a faster pace when James H. Smith died at the age of 81, and was succeeded in the Presidency of the company by his son, Herbert M. Smith. Herbert saw the company through the transition from flash powder and flash bulbs to incandescent lighting. The Fotoflood line he developed met those challenges, and lives on in very closely related products to this day.
With the Great Depression of the 30’s, the company closed its offices in Chicago and consolidated operations at the Griffith, Indiana site. For a brief time the company was down to just 5 people and total sales for 1933 were just $21,000 – the lowest sales of the company’s entire history. But within 5 years the company would rebound, along with the nation’s economy, to historically high sales.
The company remained very much a family affair into the 3rd generation. Herbert’s wife Beulah came in to help in the assembly department, and his son Ron remembers working Saturdays while in high school for 25 cents an hour. But it was Herbert’s eldest child, his daughter Marion, who became the first of the 3rd generation to join the company full time.
With a degree from the University of Chicago, she went first to work for the Illinois Central Railroad, but soon capitulated to her father’s urging to join the family business. After she’d been with the company just 3 years, World War II erupted and Herbert had to hold down the fort at home as Marion joined the Navy, serving in the Waves as a Lieutenant. Her younger brother Ron also joined the Navy, choosing the Submarine Service, and also achieved the rank of Lieutenant. During his service, Ron Smith carried on the family tradition by becoming the “official” (self-appointed) photographer on the submarine Trigger. He attached one of their cameras to the periscope, but as they were out in the middle of the Pacific, Ron reports, “there wasn’t much to take pictures of”.
At the end of the war there was a built-up demand for lights and reflectors, and those were busy, productive and prosperous years for James H. Smith & Sons Corp. Marion and Ron decided to shift the focus of the business from assembly and marketing to manufacturing. As Ron Smith puts it, “We bought spinning lathes and punch presses and learned how to use them.” They began to fabricate most products from the raw materials. Movie lights were the next hot product. The first models were simply two reflector lights on a bar. When GE developed the reflector lamp, they were incorporated into the bar lights that became the mainstay of home movie lighting and location filming.
When Herbert M. Smith passed away at the age of 64 in 1949, he was succeeded in the Presidency by Marion. Ron Smith recalls that it was unusual at that time for a company in the industry to have a woman as its chief executive, but “not unheard-of.” A current Smith-Victor employee who was here when Marion was president remembers her as a hands-on and a no-nonsense leader. She ran the company until she married in 1952 and moved with her new husband out of state.
Ronald H. Smith became the company’s 4th President, and held that position for the next 46 years. In 1953 he changed the name from James H. Smith & Sons Corp. to the more pronounceable “Smith-Victor”.
Major product lines in the 50’s and 60’s included slide files, which shipped out of Griffith by the boxcar load. The 1970’s saw the introduction of home video recorders, and Smith-Victor lighting that was specifically engineered to enhance video. For years there was a huge market for home video lights, selling through mass merchandisers such as Sears. Later, as video cameras became more sensitive, home videographers ceased to be buyers of lighting, and our products became more directed toward the professional, industrial and event videographer. Throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s, Smith-Victor did a large business in imports from Asia, particularly in tripods and bags, and maintained a warehouse and distribution center in California.
It was during that time that Ron Smith was joined in the business by the 4th generation of Smiths – his son Herb. With Herb onboard to help with operations, Ron Smith was able to bring more attention to product design and development and in that period the Ultra Cool, PL and Pro-Quartz light lines were born. Lighting kits were developed and refined, and other product lines such as light meters, albums, video tapes, conversion lenses, and even Charcoal hoppers and Coleman lantern cases had their day in the sun.
But while Ron remained active in the photographic industry – serving as President of the National Association of Photographic Manufactures, and being named Man of the Year by the National Association of Manufacturers Reps – Herb was becoming more and more immersed in the world of computers. In 1985, with his father’s blessings, he left Smith-Victor to pursue a career in programming. He remained close to the business, acting as an Officer and a consultant, until his tragic and untimely death in 1992.
When it came time to seek out the “next generation” of leadership for Smith-Victor, neither of Ron Smith’s daughters chose to take on the role, so it was time to look outside the family. Smith-Victor Corporation was sold on New Year’s Eve of 1998 to Promark International, Inc., a corporation that had earlier acquired and revitalized Acme-Lite Mfg. Co. Today, the company continues to expand its scope, marketing lighting and accessories to meet the needs of today’s imaging technologies, for photo, video, digital imaging and audio-visual applications.
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