A Giant Amongst Midgets
So Ensign Limited described the Ensign Midget camera in their publicity booklet called 'Achievement', issued in 1937 to publicize the abilities of this diminutive design to the public.
Although the camera was launched in 1934 the design for the Midget had been around for some time. It came from the man who produced many classic camera designs, Magnus Niell the Swedish engineer and designer.
Following his success with the Ensignette, manufactured by Houghtons Ltd, Niell, now resident in New York, U.S.A., continued to refine his ideas on the subject of pocketable cameras. His design for the Midget possibly being better known than that of the Ensignette. Niell applied to register his design as early as Dec. 31st 1917 and although it was granted British patent 117,399 on July 18th 1918 the design was not taken up until Ensign Limited began manufacture prior to the introduction of the camera in 1934, the reasons for which I shall examine later. Even a casual glance at the drawings that accompany the specifications for Niell's patent1 clearly reveals the features of the Midget as it later went into production with Houghton- Butcher. The main object of Niell's design was to produce a camera which when folded had no protruding surfaces to catch on clothing etc. and secondly had tapered struts which folded neatly into the body of the camera but when extended exerted a pressure on the front panel in order to hold it rigidly in position.
When it first appeared in 1934 the Ensign Midget was accompanied by a blaze of publicity. The covers of Ensign catalogues carried photographs of young women sporting the new camera and inside described the introduction as 'A thrilling event'. Ensign also took advantage of the Midgets size with an advertising slogan suggesting that you "Wear it always... like your watch". The B.J.A. of 1935 reviewed it thus: "There can be no doubt that the camera will sell on sight, because of its minimum size and natty appearance. A girl will call it 'sweet,' and want to be given one." Not surprisingly the camera sold well. Ensign initially manufactured only two models of the Midget, the A/D and A/N both of which had an everset 3 Speed shutter. Optically the A/D was simpler having only an All-Distance lens and two simple rotary stops, small and large, it cost 1 10s. The A/N had better optics a focusing Ensar-Anastigmat lens and 5 stops, it cost £2 10s. Both cameras came with a morocco leather slip case in which to keep the camera and were sold in an attractive orange box with Air Force blue printing. The Midget is constructed from pressed steel with chrome plated fittings, it weighs only 6 ounces and when folded measures a compact 3 x 13/4 x 11/16 inches. The camera has two serrated grips top and bottom of the lens panel making it very easy to open for use. Film loading was made simpler by incorporating hinged spool holders which swing out to aid loading. The back of the camera being secured by a slim sliding catch. A distinctive feature of the Midget is its fragile yet attractive folding frame finder and its small bright finder which nestles neatly behind the lens panel and swings out for use. Personally I find the frame finder much more practical and easier to use than the dark reflective finder which, I think, is too small to be of any practical use. When folded the shutter mechanism and bright finder are hidden behind the lens panel making it easy to slip the camera into a pocket safely. This construction also reduces the possibility of accidental exposures being made in the pocket and was a key feature of Niells patent. Another feature typical of Niell is the design of the bellows. When closed a flap folds across the lens to give you double protection from accidental exposure when the camera is folded, a feature Niell used in his earlier design for the "Ensignette" camera.
1935 saw some new additions to the Ensign Midget range. A cheaper 'Popular' camera was introduced, called the Model "22" it differed in many ways from the earlier Midget cameras. If we look first at the cameras outward appearance, we see that it was given a completely restyled front panel. This model having an attractively stripped lens plate with the words Ensign Midget written obliquely across it. Secondly, the distinctive folding frame finder, fitted to earlier models, is replaced by a much simpler 'swing up' finder on this camera and there was no swing out reflective finder fitted. The model "22" had the same patented 'All distance lens' as the original A/D camera but the shutter was again of a simpler design being a single speed I.T. type. The inside the camera was also changed. The earlier models had swing out spool holders to aid loading. This model had only a curved flap to cover the space where the film spools were housed. The model "22" was sold with a cheap fibre slip case and was packaged in a yellow box with red printing to distinguish it from the more expensive models, however, it was made to the same standard and although simpler and cheaper to manufacture it was still capable of producing good results. Personally, although it was the cheapest model in the Midget range I find it the most attractive and it is possibly the rarest too. The introduction of this camera instigated the adoption of new classification codes for the range. The new camera was called the Model "22" and sold for 22/- the A/D became the Model "33" and sold for 33/- with the A/N becoming the Model "55" and selling for 55/-. Very logical, unfortunately when prices rose later in 1938 the logic was somewhat lost! 1935 also saw the introduction of two special models to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary. The S33 and S55, silver painted versions of the model 33 & 55. These cameras came in a plush lined presentation box and had smart, grey leather, slip cases. Surprisingly these versions sold for the same price as the ordinary black camera. It is also surprising that so few appear to be around today as later Ensign marketed the silver version heavily as a ladies camera, still at the same price as the ordinary model.
Following the outbreak of war on September 3rd 1939 Ensign Ltd. began to capitalise on war fever, advertising the Midget as; " ...a bare half inch longer than a packet of ten cigarettes, and no thicker. It goes into a tunic pocket, with room to spare. It is essentially the camera for the man in camp. Just the thing to give a fellow who is called up or to a woman on Service." Headlined in their catalogue for 1940 as 'A Remarkable War-Time Camera', the advert goes on to suggest; " keep an Ensign Midget war-time diary." urging the reader to; " Buy a Midget and start now." .
Ensigns advertising was extremely effective and the Midget sold very well as is evident from the number of cameras around today. It was also very popular with those who used it. So much so that some manufacturers were still producing film for the Midget as late as the mid-seventies.
Although a popular camera, Ensign Limited was forced to cease production, along with the other cameras it produced, around 1941 as the company became more involved with war work. Later following the end of hostilities Barnet Ensign Limited, as the company had then become, discontinued production of the Midget. Instead, they decided to introduce a new range of cameras. The all new Commando which had been designed and produced specifically for the armed forces during the war, and remodelled Ful-Vue and Selfix cameras. The Midget was in production for only six years, yet it achieved a remarkable popularity selling in vast numbers. So, why did the company discontinue the camera after such a short production run? Perhaps it fell victim to the merger of the Houghton-Butcher Manufacturing Co. and Elliot and Sons Ltd., when Barnet Ensign Ltd. came into being. The rationalization that followed saw the demise of many models. We shall never know.
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