Argus Camera Incorporated was originally founded as the International Radio Corporation in 1931 by a group of local businessmen from Ann Arbor, Michigan who wanted to inject new life into the area and create much need jobs during the Great Depression. These businessmen included William E. Brown Jr., who later became the mayor of Ann Arbor; George Burke, a judge at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trail who became a director of the Argus Company; and Charles Albert Vershoor who became the company’s president. This new firm created 75 jobs in its first year. Their products popularized amateur photography by creating affordable and more easily-operated cameras and accessories. Vershoor understood the camera market and knew that other camera companies marketed towards professional photographers. He recognized that a market existed for inexpensive cameras that were good enough for family photographers for easy-to-use, cost-effective instruments.
Their first camera, the Model A camera, was introduced in May 1936 and was also the first entirely American-made 35mm camera. In 1949, they changed the company name to Argus Camera Incorporated, also referred to as “Argus.” Argus became the second largest manufacturer and distributor of camera equipment in the United States well into the 1950s, surpassed only by the Eastman Kodak company. Starting in 1954 until 1956, they profited over $1 million. In 1959, Argus Camera Inc. was acquired by Sylvania and sold off in 1969, by which time it had ceased camera production even though some rebadged cameras were sold under the Argus name through the 1970s.
The Argus Museum was established by area developer, William Martin, and O’Neal Construction owner, Joe O’Neal. It opened in the original Argus building when the pair purchased it for O’Neal Construction in 1985. Martin and O’Neal knew the historic significance of the building, so they gave their partnership the name C3 Partners representing one of the most recognizable cameras from Argus, the C-3. The two men then purchased the Don Wallace Collection as the foundation of the museum’s collection in 1987. Wallace was a former Argus employee and long-time collector of the company’s products. The museum features products manufactured by the Argus camera company and tells the stories of the company, the people involved, and showcases unique collections connected to Argus. The museum is housed on the second floor of the Argus I building, which was one of the facilities where Argus products were manufactured. The museum holds rare cameras like the giant models, experimental model 12s, and even Vokar cameras; the second brand of cameras started by Vershoor. The museum also tells Argus’s contribution to the war effort through sighting devices, prisms and lenses like an M72 Telescope used in Sherman Tanks during World War II. The museum archives include business newsletters, company photographs and promotional films, company documents, instruction booklets, advertisements, and product manuals. One of the best resources in the archives includes the Argus Eye, the company’s newsletter. Much of these newsletters were personal employee milestones including births, marriages, deaths, retirements and anniversaries.
Today the museum hosts photography exhibitions and the annual Argus Collector Group Fall Conference. They also work closely with other local museums such as the Yankee Air Museum (YAM) to bring a collaborated exhibit called Argus: Eyes for Victory. This exhibit is hosted by YAM to bring together a company perspective on wartime efforts and showcases the manufactured military optics for tanks and anti-tank guns. The Argus Museum has also worked with Michigan Military Technical and Historical Society Museum in a similar way as YAM. The Argus Museum has recently worked with photographers Adrian Wylie of Ann Arbor, Robert Beech of Ypsilanti and former Artist-in-Residence at Gettysburg National Battleground Park, and Thomas Nighswander of Ann Arbor to bring new photo exhibitions into the gallery.
The mission of the Argus Museum is to collect and preserve Argus Camera Incorporated products (including those manufactured under its prior names), publications and history of the company and its employees, to research the products and the people who were involved in the development and manufacturing of these products, to insure these collections are available for others to research, and to interpret and display the collections for public viewing to promote knowledge and appreciation of Argus.
The Argus Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Argus products. The staff has been working on collecting oral histories from Argus employees and their families. The Argus Museum is one of few camera museums in the world. The Camera Heritage Museum in Staunton, Virginia and the Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania own large collections of cameras; however, there are few Argus cameras at either institution.