Popular culture series, such as James Bond, reveal that Americans have had a long and enduring fascination with spy gear. Our obsession with gadgets and gismos has even resulted in a museum dedicated to espionage! One particular piece of spy gear to emerge out of this craze is the hidden camera. Hidden cameras come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from pen sized cameras to those hidden inside of hats. One particularly interesting, and unusual, form of hidden camera comes in the form of the vest camera.

vest camera isf

Camera, 1886, nickel-plated metal, glass, (Depth: 1 in. x Diameter: 5.75 in.). New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Alfred J. Telfer, Cooperstown, New York, N.0065.1945. Photograph by Luke Murphy

 The vest camera held in the collection of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) and was patented on July 27, 1886 by Robert D. Gray and sold by Stirn and Lyon. This camera represents part of a trend that began in the 1880s that saw cameras become more portable. This particular model of camera, colloquially known as the “detective’s camera,” gave people the ability to covertly take pictures, much like a detective would.[1] The camera has a string and the user would wear it around his neck. The lens would stick out of the button hole and disguise itself as a button so the user could take six different pictures without the subject knowing.[2] Curiously, though this item was meant to be concealed under a vest, the camera was coated in nickel, a notoriously reflective element. Additionally, this device appears to be geared towards a male audience. Due to where the camera would point out—a button hole at chest level—it would have been unlikely a woman would have had a garment to support the device.

Vest Cam vest

Vest Camera in action. Taken from: Editors of Time Life Books, The Camera (New York: Time-Life Books, 1970), 152.

        While this camera did not have a long production run Time-Life’s The Camera suggests that three years after Gray patented the device, retailers sold as many as 15,000 units, a number the authors find considerable.[3] People interested in purchasing this camera could do so for ten dollars (fifteen if they desired the “magic lantern” sized model). Today, this camera is considered a collector’s piece. At an auction in Hong Kong, the camera—described as a “vintage spy camera”—is selling for £3,800 to £5,500.[4] While advertisers marketed this as an object for the masses, professional photographs also came to possess this device. This particular model was owned by Alfred Telfer. Telfer is one of the Cooperstown’s most famous photographers and his collection can be found in Cooperstown at the Fennimore Art Museum.


Photograph courtesy of Flickr.com

In the twenty-first century, cameras have lost their appeal as spy gear. Today’s cool gadgets typically involve touch screens or holograms, and the ubiquity of cameras has taken away the cool factor the vest camera once enjoyed. In the 1880s, however, this piece represented a new wave of espionage equipment and shows the lasting love affair Americans have with new and secret gadgetry.

[1] Editors of Time Life Books, The Camera (New York: Time-Life Books, 1970), 152.

[2]The Telegraph, “Vintage Spy Camera Auction in Hong Kong,” accessed December 14, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/howaboutthat/12016715/Vintage-spy-camera-auction-in-Hong-Kong-in-pictures.html?frame=3510038.

[3]Editors of Time Life Books, The Camera, 152.

[4] “Vintage Spy Camera”.