Fotomat…What’s That?

The following article first appeared on July 25, 2009 for my The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed.   footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue.  I’m currently on hiatus writing this column for Shades, but I encourage you to visit the latest edition of the digital magazine (The Mourning Issue) for some excellent writing and photography!

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Other than hearing the songs I listened to in high school on the “oldies” station, the one thing that truly makes me feel old is not being understood by children. It happened one day while out on a drive with my nieces. We passed a tiny shack on the side of the road that sold water ice, and they found it hysterical because it was so small.

“It looks like a Fotomat!” I exclaimed.

No recognition appeared on their faces. “A what?” asked the 13-year-old.

“You know, the little Fotomat huts…” But then I realized – no, she doesn’t know. By the time she was born, Fotomats were already a thing of the past – as extinct in the photographic world as daguerreotypes and box cameras. It was time for a history lesson.

“The Fotomat was a little shack, usually in a parking lot of a shopping center, and you would drive up to the window and drop off your film to get developed.” I explained this with the sincerity of a lesson on Ancient Rome or the Civil War.

Kodak Fotomat – 1960s courtesy of Roadside Pictures

“Film? Like a movie?” she asked. “What do you mean by ‘get developed’?”

This was going to be harder than I thought. “Ah, it was in your camera – like a memory card. Getting prints made was called getting it developed.”

Suddenly I was nostalgic for that little blue building with the yellow roof that sat in the middle of the parking lot of the supermarket. What I remember most about the Fotomat experience is the one thing lacking in today’s digital world – the anticipation. One of the best things about digital cameras for me is the ability to instantly see your shot on an LCD screen. Instant gratification! As great as this is, and as useful in photography, sometimes the things worth waiting for were better. Well, maybe not better – but different. And there’s something to be said for that anticipation!

I began taking photographs with my own camera at the age of 11, and since you couldn’t see them as you took them (unless you had a Polaroid, of course), it was always interesting to see how your photos “turned out”. Or in some cases, what was on that roll of film. In your family, did you ever find a roll of film in a drawer that appeared to be used, but no one ever knew what it was from? Well, all you had to do was drive up to the window at the Fotomat, drop it off, and wait a day. You’d get to see your pictures when you picked them up!

I was fascinated by these little huts. Did they actually develop the film in there? How? If you worked there, what did you do when there were no cars in line? And how do you fit a bathroom in there?

The first Fotomat drive-thru kiosk opened in the late 1960s in Point Loma, California. By 1980, there were 4,000 sites throughout the country. Customers could receive their prints in one day, but when the first film developers began to offer prints in one hour, Fotomat was doomed. It’s ironic, because today I would have assumed that the thing that killed it – 1-hour developing – would have made it viable. After all, in the 21st century people like to spend more time in their car than at home. They can buy and eat breakfast, visit the bank, pick up prescriptions, get lunch, buy some groceries, get the car washed, drop off their dry cleaning, and pick up dinner without ever leaving the car. So why wouldn’t Fotomats work today? Drop off your memory card and pick up your prints in an hour! I think it would work, but the shacks were too small – especially for film developing, which was a more complex process than printing digital photos today.

By the mid-1980’s, the familiar huts were gone. The one I used to use was torn down long ago, but in some cases the huts were recycled into other uses from selling snow cones to cigarettes. The most creative re-use I’ve found so far is as a chapel! Imagine that – a prayer shack!

Copyright 2008 Michael Poulin

After we stopped at the former Fotomat for water ice, my nieces learned all about what photography was like when I was growing up. I was proud at having done my duty passing down my memories of bygone things. The 13-year-old was going to tell her friends about the weird customs of their parents. “Okay,” she said, hoping I’d stop talking about the past. “I get it!”

The 4-year-old suddenly joined in the conversation. Nodding her head, she looked at me and asked matter-of-factly, “But why didn’t you just print the pictures at home?”

That would be a lesson for another day – let’s go take some photos instead!


15 thoughts on “Fotomat…What’s That?

  1. I can so relate about not being understood by children. It seems to be almost a daily thing around here! They don’t understand phrases we old fogies use all the time like, “strike while the iron’s hot” or why the “glove box” in the car is called a glove box (but then who wears gloves in Phoenix anyway!).

  2. Donna, This is getting scary. I have used an ice box. I remember well having to stop by the gas station to get those huge blocks of ice for it.

    The funny thing there is that my kids do know what an ice box is but only because we still have it. It’s a great antique with lots of memories. We use it to store paper goods now.

  3. My daughter is in her 20s and we had the same conversation when she was in her teens. All I needed to say then was “You, know, the little camera store in the ‘Back to the Future’ movie” and she got it, and she said back to me “Like in that 70s TV show”. So a few months ago I mentioned “Back to the Future” to a teen and she said “Never heard of that movie!” Now I really feel old!

  4. hey I am trying to prove that there was one in Ohio in the Chapel Hill Mall trying to find locations is still there put a ke making hut can you help

  5. I was a route man for Fotomat in Northern NJ in the early 1970’s while in college. Drove about 150 miles a day picking up film to be developed and dropping off the developed film and supplies to the girls in the booths. Great fun!

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  7. Pingback: Fun with Fotomat! | redfishingboat

  8. Yes, it was like getting a present when you went in and picked up your prints from the photomat. Mom would be driving as I went through the photos on the way home. just not the same with digital anymore.

  9. Hi Donna, was very interested in reading the fotomat article. Do you have any idea if there is a list of all the 4000 or some of the stores and did fotomat sell them all?

  10. I actually worked in a Fotomat booth for a couple of years in Toronto. Ah, the memories…and no, film was not developed in there. Orders were taken, packaged up and picked up by a mysterious man, who brought them back, developed the following day.

  11. I used to work in a Fotomat booth in Lewiston, NY. It had heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. I used to order subs and pizza and have them delivered to the booth. I did, on occassion drink wine coolers whilst in the booth. I knew everything that was going on in Lewiston; parties, proms, weddings, baptisms, you name it…cuz everyone developed their film at Fotomat! I tricked my friend and told him that the seat was dual purpose and was also a toilet! I also tricked a customer who had asked me if we had any fuji film…I told her I had to check the basement and then slowler lowered by body down the window until I disappeared only to re-appear a few minutes later stating that I checked the basement and we were out of that film. LOL! Good times!

  12. I worked at the Fotomat in Lewiston NY from 1976 through 1981 earning the coveted title of “Fotomate of the Year” which got me a week in Jamaica! Seriously I loved that job and it paid my expenses and bar tab through college plus I knew everything that was going on. I frequently would get caught looking at customers pics, sometimes as they drove up! I would also “borrow” undies to share with my friends at Daddy’s. One night the subject of the photos was actually in the bar. If I was caught cleaning the floor, I would make it look like I was walking up a flight of stairs telling my customer I was in the darkroom developing prints or in the employee lounge. God how I loved that job!!

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