Kodak Nears Bankruptcy: Remembering “The Big Yellow Box” and the Quality of Life It Made Possible in Rochester, NY

Posted on October 1, 2011

George EastmanGeorge Eastman is credited with making Rochester a high tech town and keeping it that way.  Rumor is that Henry Ford wanted to build a car plant here and Eastman told him to take it down the road, thanks.

Among the kinds of businesses supported in the late 1800s were shoe and garment making, buggy whip manufacture, flour milling, the seed industry and agriculture. SamHenry’s great grandfather, Jesse Hatch, tweaked a Singer sewing machine to be first to automate the shoe industry by sewing leather uppers to soles.  During the Civil War, the Brown Shoe Company of Buster Brown fame stole his patent and made a fortune.  Still, Jesse invented baby shoes and hired the first woman sales clerk in Rochester’s history.  [Quarterly Journal NY State Historical Society] Rochester has always been a berg of invention and creativity.

In the early 19th century, it was all about George Eastman and his community creation.  With money gained from the building of the photographic industry out at Kodak Park, he gave us the Eastman School of Music, a beautiful concert hall designed by Sanford White,  a university and many other civic gifts too numerous to mention.  He established an enviable quality of life here.

But in the final quarter of the 20th century, an inability to move in management style away from the “Kodak way” toward  the potential of digital photography while concurrently carrying out some ill-conceived moves to diversify the company, Kodak  headed headlong toward the headline:  Kodak near bankruptcy.

This is a company whose “campus”once  covered a large portion of this city and whose wealth enabled Rochester to print its own money or script during the Great Depression and to carry on fairly unscathed.  So many in the community were touched by Kodak that you heard it said “the big yellow box takes care of us.”  And it did.

Other great names in the business annals of the United States were rooted and grew here in a place of plentiful educated and skilled workers:  Xerox, Castle, Bausch and Lomb, Gannett, Hickey Freeman, and more recently, Wegman’s Food Stores.  But the foundation of it all was guaranteed by George Eastman who through generous gifts and guidance in development shaped this place for decades.  While the University of Rochester is now the City’s largest employer, it too owes its very existence to the founder of the “yellow box.”

Of all of our industries, Kodak has been the closest to the heart of Rochester and for those of us who remember it’s golden age, we will mourn the passing of its greatness.

Posted in: ECONOMY