A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy: Part 6: George Eastman’s Radical Generosity
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
In 1922 a little-known accountant named Moses Cotsworth became fixated with designing a highly symmetrical calendar system that he thought would make recordkeeping much easier. He designed an International Fixed Calendar of 13 months, each with 28 days (the extra month, called Sol, came between June and July). It was a major departure from the universally accepted 12-month calendar, and ultimately it failed to gain any traction except for a single business that adopted it for all of its operations. That business was the Eastman Kodak Company.
Founded by George Eastman in 1888, Kodak was a world leader in photographic technology for most of the 20th century. And it was George Eastman who drove every aspect of the company during its rise to power. An innovator and entrepreneur from an early age, Eastman personally invented the first successful camera and film for the general public. As the demand for these products increased, Eastman was relentless in his quest for efficiency and precision in his company’s operations. He was also exceedingly strong-willed — when he decided to so something his wishes were usually carried out without question. Fortunately, he often made very good decisions.
By 1899 Kodak had become so successful that it dominated the photography market in the U.S. With that success George Eastman somewhat quickly became one of the wealthiest men in the world. To celebrate this good fortune, he gave each of the nearly 3,000 employees in the company a bonus that averaged $1,700 per person (in 2015 dollars). It was one of the first known company bonuses ever given to all employees, regardless of their position or tenure.
Unusual among his peers, Eastman strongly believed in supporting both the people and the community that helped him become wealthy. In 1901 he gave his first significant philanthropic gift to the local Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, which later became the Rochester Institute of Technology. The gift was $625,000, equivalent to $17.8 million in 2015 dollars. He also gave major gifts to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to the University of Rochester, where his gift launched the Eastman School of Music.
Later, as his interests expanded, he made then unconventional gifts to several all-black colleges in the South, including Tuskegee and Hampton universities. It should be noted, however, that Eastman was sometimes inconsistent in his philosophy of giving. At the same time, he supported the black colleges he also supported the American Eugenics Society, an organization known for its opposition to what was then called “race mixing”.
For the most part, though, he was a man ahead of his time. In 1911 he created a $1 million accident and pension fund for his employees — some 50 years before these kinds of funds became more commonplace in many businesses. Later he continued his generosity to his employees by setting up a way they could buy company stock at just 17% of its market value; setting up an Employees Association that would help workers buy their own homes; and by creating a retirement annuity and disability benefits for all of his workers. These types of employee benefits were far ahead of their time, and they came about only because of Eastman’s persistent belief in helping those who helped him.
Like everything else in his life, Eastman was in complete charge of his philanthropy. He tried very hard to give away all of his wealth while he was still alive, saying “Men who leave their money to be distributed by others are pie-faced mutts.” By the time he died by his own hand in 1932, he had given away the equivalent of $2 billion in 2015 dollars, more money than anyone then living except John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Unlike Rockefeller and Carnegie, however, Eastman was very appreciative of the employees who made him wealthy, and his generosity extended to them as well as the general public.
Ironically, it was only after his death that some of his wealth was used to recognize the importance of photography. He had built and lived by himself in a large mansion in Rochester, and in his will, he bequeathed it to the University of Rochester. After World War II the university decided to honor the man who had given so much to their institution, and they transformed the mansion into the George Eastman House Museum of Photography. Today it’s simply known as the George Eastman Museum, home of one of the most comprehensive collections of photographs and photographic technology in the world.
To understand what made George Eastman such a force in the world he lived one need look no further than Moses Cotsworth’s calendar. It was an instrument of simplicity and sensibility, like many of Eastman’s own photographic inventions. Did it matter to Eastman that very few people appreciated those qualities in the calendar? Not at all.
In 1928 Kodak adopted the International Fixed Calendar for all of their business operations, and, amazingly, they continued to use it until 1989, some 57 years after Eastman’s death.
I have no idea what kind of leadership qualities it must have taken to insist that a major business implement and keep a dating system that no one else in the world used, especially long after that leadership had passed on, but I’m pretty sure that it took one heck of a strong will and an unwavering belief in one’s own wisdom. Fortunately, for photography and for the many early employees at Kodak, George Eastman was that kind of leader.
This article is part of the series A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy: