Great Museums: Picture Perfect: George Eastman House
Located on historic East Avenue in Rochester, New York, this special showcases the 12.5-acre museum site that was the urban estate of George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company. The Museum focuses on the 150-year history of the art, technology, and impact of photography and motion pictures — media that continue to change our perception of the world. The 1910 Colonial era house, where Eastman lived and died, offers a glimpse into the private world of this marketing genius who invented the word “Kodak” and made photographers of us all!
George Eastman (July 12, 1854 – March 14, 1932) was an American innovator and entrepreneur who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized the use of roll film, helping to bring photography to the mainstream. Roll film was also the basis for the invention of motion picture film in 1888 by the world’s first film-makers Eadweard Muybridge and Louis Le Prince, and a few years later by their followers Léon Bouly,Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and Georges Méliès.
He was a major philanthropist, establishing the Eastman School of Music, and schools of dentistry and medicine at the University of Rochester and in London; contributing to RIT and the construction of MIT‘s second campus on the Charles River; and donating to Tuskegee and Hampton universities. In addition, he provided funds for clinics in London and other European cities to serve low-income residents.
In the last few years of his life Eastman suffered with chronic pain and reduced functionality due to a spine illness. On March 14, 1932 Eastman shot himself in the heart, leaving a note which read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”
Eastman was born in Waterville, New York to George Washington Eastman and Maria Eastman (née Kilbourn), the youngest child, at the 10-acre farm which his parents bought in 1849. He had two older sisters, Ellen Maria and Katie. He was largely self-educated, although he attended a private school in Rochester after the age of eight. His father had started a business school, the Eastman Commercial College in the early 1840s in Rochester, New York, described as one of the first “boomtowns” in the United States, with a rapid growth in industry. As his father’s health started deteriorating, the family gave up the farm and moved to Rochester in 1860. His father died of a brain disorder in May 1862. To survive and afford George’s schooling, his mother took in boarders.
Maria’s second daughter, Katie, had contracted polio when young and died in late 1870 when George was 16 years old. The young George left school early and started working. As George Eastman began to experience success with his photography business, he vowed to repay his mother for the hardships she had endured in raising him.
In 1884, Eastman patented the first film in roll form to prove practicable; he had been tinkering at home to develop it. In 1888, he perfected the Kodak camera, the first camera designed specifically for roll film. In 1892, he established the Eastman Kodak Company, in Rochester, New York. It was one of the first firms to mass-produce standardized photography equipment. The company also manufactured the flexible transparent film, devised by Eastman in 1889, which proved vital to the subsequent development of the motion picture industry.
He started his philanthropy early, sharing the income from his business to establish educational and health institutions. Notable among his contributions were a $625,000 gift in 1901 (equivalent to $17.5 million in present day terms) to the Mechanics Institute, now Rochester Institute of Technology; and a major gift in the early 1900s to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which enabled the construction of buildings on its second campus by the Charles River. MIT opened this campus in 1916.
George Eastman never married, because he carried on a long platonic relationship with Josephine Dickman, a trained singer and the wife of business associate George Dickman, and he became especially close to her after the death of his mother, Maria Eastman, in 1907. He was also an avid traveler and music lover.
His mother, Maria, was his main family for the majority of his life, and her death was particularly crushing to George. Almost pathologically concerned with decorum, he found himself unable for the first time to control his emotions in the presence of friends. “When my mother died I cried all day”, he explained later. “I could not have stopped to save my life”. Due to his mother’s hesitancy and refusal to take his gifts, George Eastman could never do enough for his mother during her lifetime. Thus, after she was gone, George opened the Eastman Theater in Rochester on September 4, 1922, among its features was a chamber-music hall dedicated to her memory: the Kilbourn Theater. And long after that, a rose cutting from her childhood home still flowered on the grounds of the Eastman House.
Eastman was associated with Kodak company in an administrative and an executive capacity until his death; he contributed much to the development of its notable research facilities. In 1911, he founded the Eastman Trust and Savings Bank. While discouraging the formation of unions at his manufacturing plant, he established paternal systems of support for his employees.
He was one of the outstanding philanthropists of his time, donating more than $100 million to various projects in Rochester; Cambridge, Massachusetts; at two historically black colleges in the South; and in several European cities. In 1918, he endowed the establishment of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, and in 1921 a school of medicine and dentistry there.
In 1925, Eastman gave up his daily management of Kodak to become treasurer. He concentrated on philanthropic activities, to which he had already donated substantial sums. For example, he donated funds to establish the Eastman Dental Dispensary in 1916. He was one of the major philanthropists of his time, ranking only slightly behind Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and a few others, but did not seek publicity for his activities. He concentrated on institution-building and causes that could help people’s health. From 1926 until his death, Eastman donated $22,050 per year to the American Eugenics Society.
George Eastman donated £200,000 in 1926 to fund a dental clinic in London, UK after being approached by the Chairman of the Royal Free Hospital, Lord Riddell. This was in addition to donations of £50,000 each from Lord Riddell and the Royal Free honorary treasurer. On 20 November 1931, the Eastman Dental Clinic opened in front of Neville Chamberlain and the American Ambassador. The clinic was incorporated into the Royal Free Hospital and was committed to providing dental care for disadvantaged children from central London.
Infirmity and Suicide
In his final two years Eastman was in intense pain caused by a disorder affecting his spine. He had trouble standing, and his walk became a slow shuffle. Today it might be diagnosed as a form of degenerative disease such as disc herniations from trauma or age causing either painful nerve root compressions, or perhaps a type of lumbar spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal caused by calcification in the vertebrae. Since his mother suffered the final 2 years of her life in a wheelchair, she also may have had a spine condition but that is unknown—only her uterine cancer and successful surgery is documented in her health history. If she did have a musculoskeletal disorder, perhaps George Eastman’s spine condition may have been due to a congenital disease, such as Ankylosing Spondylitis, degenerative disc disease, or a variant of Ehlers-Danlos collagen disorder—conditions known to be inheritable but usually presenting earlier in age. Eastman grew increasingly depressed due to his pain, reduced ability to function, and also since he witnessed his mother’s suffering from pain. On March 14, 1932, Eastman committed suicide with a single gunshot through the heart, leaving a note which read:
“To my friends, My work is done – Why wait?”
His funeral was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester; he was buried on the grounds of the company he founded at Kodak Park in Rochester, New York.
During his lifetime Eastman donated $100 million to various organizations but most of the money went to the University of Rochester and to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (under the alias “Mr. Smith”). The Rochester Institute of Technology has a building dedicated to Eastman, in recognition of his support and substantial donations. In recognition of his donation to MIT, the university installed a plaque of Eastman (students rub their noses on the plaque for good luck.) Eastman also made substantial gifts to the Tuskegee Institute and the Hampton Institute. Upon his death, his entire estate went to the University of Rochester, where his name can be found on the Eastman Quadrangle of the River Campus. The auditorium at Mississippi State Universities Dave C. Swalm School of Chemical Engineering is named for Eastman in recognition of his inspiration to Swalm.
His former home at 900 East Avenue in Rochester, New York was opened as the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in 1949. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1954, the 100th anniversary of his birth, Eastman was honored with a postage stamp from the United States Post Office. In the fall of 2009, a statue of Eastman was erected on the Eastman Quad of the University of Rochester.
In 1915, Eastman founded a bureau of municipal research in Rochester “to get things done for the community” and to serve as an “independent, non-partisan agency for keeping citizens informed”. Called the Center for Governmental Research, the agency continues to carry out that mission.
Eastman had a very astute business sense. He focused his company on making film when competition heated up in the camera industry. By providing quality and affordable film to every camera manufacturer, Kodak managed to turn its competitors into de facto business partners.
In 1926, George Eastman was approached by Lord Riddell, the Chairman of Royal Free Hospital, to fund a dental clinic in London. He agreed to give £200,000, which was matched by £50,000 each from Lord Riddell and Sir Albert Levy, the Royal Free’s honorary treasurer. The Eastman Dental Clinic was opened on November 20, 1931, by the American Ambassador in the presence of Neville Chamberlain. The building, which resembled the Rochester Dispensary, was totally integrated into the Royal Free Hospital and included three wards for oral, otolaryngology and cleft lip and palate surgery. It was dedicated to providing dental care for children from the poor districts of central London. In a similar manner, Eastman went on to establish dental clinics in Rome,Paris, Brussels, and Stockholm.
- U.S. Patent 226,503 “Method and Apparatus for Coating Plates,” filed September 1879, issued April 1880.
- U.S. Patent 306,470 “Photographic Film,” filed May 10, 1884, issued October 14, 1884.
- U.S. Patent 306,594 “Photographic Film,” filed March 7, 1884, issued October 14, 1884.
- U.S. Patent 317,049 (with William H. Walker) “Roll Holder for Photographic Films”, filed August 1884, issued May 1885.
- U.S. Patent 388,850 “Camera,” filed March, 1888, issued September, 1888.
- Eastman licensed, then purchased U.S. Patent 248,179 “Photographic Apparatus” (roll film holder), filed June 21, 1881, issued October 11, 1881 to David H. Houston.