50 years ago, the Polaroid Swinger found instant fame

The Polaroid Swinger brought instant photography to the masses. The low-cost, mass-market camera foreshadowed the Apple iPhone and other hand-held devices that let people capture images and share them right away.
The Polaroid Swinger brought instant photography to the masses. The low-cost, mass-market camera foreshadowed the Apple iPhone and other hand-held devices that let people capture images and share them right away.

It was 1963, and Polaroid had a problem — the best one a company could have. The instant camera, the product it had created, was 15 years old. Pushed by its scientist-humanist-genius founder, Edwin Land, its breakthrough labs had made millions releasing sepia and black-and-white instant film, and people were now clamoring for the first color film, called Type 108, and the new Colorpack line of cameras designed to handle it.

So what was the problem? Color was such a hit that buyers were shying away from black-and-white film. In the giant plant on Route 128 in Waltham, the black-and-white machines — formerly running flat-out, on multiple shifts — were idling.

The solution was ingenious. Polaroid cameras had always been expensive, partly because they were well-made but also because the company wished to convey that instant cameras were not toys. That stance, though, put the product beyond the reach of many buyers. What if, they said, we offer­ an inexpensive camera that uses only black-and-white film? A low enough price would draw the baby boom’s affluent kids, at an age when they were starting to make their own substantial purchases. Some of them, Polaroid hoped, would later graduate to the grownup line.

It hit the market 50 years ago this month, with a TV ad that still revs up boys of a certain age. A lithe young woman slinks down the beach in a bikini­ bottom and a gamine’s T-shirt. She and her friends play in the surf, taking photos; at the end, we see her walking arm-in-arm with a beau. A surf-rock jingle unspools:

“Meet the Swinger / Polaroid Swinger … it’s more than a camera, it’s almost alive / It’s only nineteen dollars and ninety-five.”

The actress in the ad, Ali MacGraw, would soon be the It girl of her time.

The camera itself was white and curvy, entirely plastic, with a bright-red button and a mirrored bezel. When you looked through the viewfinder, if there was enough light, a grid of squares reflected the word YES. It certainly had limits: The lens was only OK, and the pictures were less than a quarter the size of a 4×6 print. You had to coat them, using a swab of liquid goop included with each pack of film, lest they fade to a silvery brown.

Nonetheless, the Swinger was a smash. In the first two years, 5 million were sold. It was as necessary a teenage accoutrement as a video game console or an iPad is now.

The name came from Phyllis Robinson, Polaroid’s brilliant copywriter at the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. “Swinger” implied groovy play, but hinted at something kids were doing that their parents didn’t want to know about. The name went right over parents’ heads, especially as it tacitly referred to a certain kind of picture you couldn’t send to the Fotomat.

No fad lasts. Teens are fickle. One study found the average Swinger was used for barely two rolls of film. The camera was discontinued in 1970.

Yet it lingers. When I was working on a book about Polaroid and mentioned it to friends, younger folks were interested in the company’s analog-age power and its digital-age collapse; much older people remembered the wonder of the earliest instant photos.

And people who were kids in 1965 almost all did the same thing: They smiled and began to sing. “It’s more than a camera / It’s almost alive.”

It may have been intended for everyday use, but the Swinger came with a 15-page operating manual that included instructions on everything from how to hold the camera to handling and coating the film.

Here’s a look back at other big moments from Polaroid’s past. 

1965 – The inexpensive Swinger is released, a $20 camera that takes wallet-size black-and-white photos.

1972 – Polaroid introduces the SX-70 camera, the first automatic single-lens reflex that makes instant color prints.

1983 – Polaroid has 13,402 employees $1.3 billion in sales, 1,000-plus patents.

2000 – It’s the top seller of digital cameras in US.

2001 – Digital camera sales can’t save the company’s crashing film sales. It declares bankruptcy in October.

2006 – Polaroid stops making instant cameras a year before the iPhone; two years later instant film is discontinued.