Photo Booths: A Short History

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega explores the history and nostalgia of photo booths, which – in some places – are still around! Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

What types of photos do you have of your 20th century family? Do you have any small photos, less than 2 inches by 2 inches, of a family member or two? Maybe a strip of four photos of a couple posing for the camera, sitting closely together in front of a curtain?

Photo: photo booth photographs of an unidentified couple, 1946. Credit: from the author’s collection.
Photo: photo booth photographs of an unidentified couple, 1946. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Photo booth photographs were popular from their advent in 1925 until the 1960s. It’s possible you have some family photos in your collection from a photo booth. Their size, curtain background and limit of two people might be one way to identify them, though not all photo booth photographs look this way. Curious about the history of photo booths and the photographs created?

Photo: inventor Anatol Josepho inside his photo booth, c. 1927. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Photo: inventor Anatol Josepho inside his photo booth, c. 1927. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Photo Booth History

The photo booth made its debut in New York City in 1925. Invented by Anatol Josepho, who had arrived in the United States two years earlier, his photo booth provided 8 snapshots for 25 cents available in 10 minutes. (1) His “Photomaton” was located on Broadway and an estimated 200,000 people are said to have used it. (2)

This 1927 newspaper article titled “Latest Facts from Science, Mechanics and Invention” announces “cameras now operated with coins.” The article explains that Anatol Josepho’s “device shows promise of utility in making passport photos, in criminal identification and in numerous fields.” The article states that in the “first five days of operation, 7,500 blasé New Yorkers hiked into the studio, dropped their quarters in the slot and departed with a pleased grin, bearing eight perfect miniature portraits of themselves in as many poses.”

An article about phone booths, Oregon Journal newspaper 23 January 1927
Oregon Journal (Portland, Oregon), 23 January 1927, page 58

The article goes on to explain how the “automatic camera” and printing worked.

An article authored by a journalist in Atlantic City explains the process of using a photo booth based on his own experience. His article explains what the experience was like in 1927, including the detail that a third party (possibly a photo booth employee) stood by the photo slot to ensure that each person received their photographs and not someone else’s.

An article about photo booths, Cincinnati Post newspaper 6 July 1927
Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, Ohio), 6 July 1927, page 1

As time went on, improvements to the photo booth allowed the process to be quicker and offered more options for how the photo would look and be delivered. A 1935 Popular Mechanics magazine article pictures a photo booth and explains how it could now deliver a metal-framed photo in just 30 seconds.

Photo: a photo booth from a 1935 “Popular Mechanics” magazine article. Credit: Google Books.
Photo: a photo booth from a 1935 “Popular Mechanics” magazine article. Credit: Google Books.

Consumers in the 1900s could access photo booths in any number of places, including train stations and department stores. This store advertisement encourages shoppers to visit their photo booth for the “trufoto” process.

An article about photo booths, Bay City Times newspaper 19 July 1940
Bay City Times (Bay City, Michigan), 19 July 1940, page 25

The price of the photos, now 10 cents for 4, made the impromptu purchase affordable and open to almost anyone. “Trufoto” photo booths provided an easy way to take and share photos with friends. A paper photo album could hold the photos and if desired, enlargements, and hand-coloring could be added. Young women employees could hand-tint the photo based on what the person was wearing. (3) While the photo booth was in a sense “self-serve,” in some locations onsite staff offered extras.

An article about photo booths, Evansville Press newspaper 6 August 1936
Evansville Press (Evansville, Indiana), 6 August 1936, page 13

It makes sense that photo booths would be popular during war time. Newspaper articles during World War II document young women sending photos to their soldiers and sailors, or military men taking photos in booths during their leave.

This article published in the Chicago Sun includes a quote from a young woman, Elaine Wilson, getting her photo taken at a photo booth for her boyfriend in the marines. She weighs in on whether young women should smile in photos for their military-serving boyfriends. Her answer? Definitely. She had already sent three smiling photos to hers!

An article about photo booths, Chicago Sun newspaper 11 April 1943
Chicago Sun (Chicago, Illinois), 11 April 1943, page 11

Over time photo booths were not just a place to take some fun photos; they were also used for identification cards such as passports. But by the 1960s the photo booth was less of a necessity once “instant” photographs were available via Polaroid cameras, and increasing numbers of people owned cameras and could access photo developers. Now consumers can take their own quick photos with their smart phones, and include whomever and whatever they choose, without the limitations of a photo booth.

Today’s Photo Booths

You can still find photo booths scattered around the nation in entertainment venues such as zoos, arcades, and malls. Today the photo booth has evolved, and while you can find some that are very similar to the booths of the 20th century, there are services that bring the photo booth to you. These portable booths aren’t always booths but instead may be a mirror or just an area cordoned off with a curtain and props to take photo booth-like photographs. Today our families can still take a quick photo just like their 20th century family but with a modern twist.

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Note on the header image: an undated photo booth photograph of a couple. Credit: from the author’s collection.


(1) “Photo Booth,” Wikipedia ( accessed 29 August 2023).
(2) “The Photo Booth: When Did It Become So Popular?” Outsnapped (,while%20their%20photo%20strips%20developed: accessed 29 August 2023).
(3) “A Garden of Memories,” Fans in a Flashbulb ( accessed 29 August 2023).

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