Collecting Cameras

Sears Tower Flash 120

In its heyday, Sears was on a quest to sell anything an average person could want. They were Amazon, minus the Web site and the free shipping. Sears offered a vast number of products under its own brands, including cameras under the Tower brand. A number of different manufacturers produced Tower cameras, usually simply relabeling for Sears a camera they already sold directly. Such was the case with this box camera for 120 film, the Sears Tower Flash 120, which Sears sold in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Made by Bilora in (then) West Germany, it was identical to the Stahl Box (Steel Box) camera but for a different face plate.

Sears Tower Flash 120

Like most box cameras, it offers a meniscus lens set behind a rotary shutter. A switch on the front lets you choose between bulb and a timed shutter of probably 1/30 second. The aperture is almost certainly f/11 — I’ve seen other Tower Flash 120s with “f/11” printed on the face plate. The box is made of metal, rather than the usual cardboard. Also, you operate the shutter with a proper button on the camera’s face, rather than a lever on the side. The button even accepts a cable release, although like most boxes, there’s no tripod mount. The Tower Flash 120 offers two waist-level viewfinders, portrait on top and landscape on the side.

Sears Tower Flash 120

I’ve seen two other versions of the Tower Flash 120. One wraps the box’s sides, top, and bottom with a ribbed, rubbery skin. The other uses a plainer face plate (it says “Model 7,” but I’m not aware of models 1 through 6) and a smooth, rather than textured, front and back. Some Tower Flash 120s use a slotted shutter-speed switch rather than the tabbed one on my copy.

Sears Tower Flash 120

My Tower Flash 120 was was donated to my collection by a longtime collector who retired and downsized. It came with its flash attachment, which takes two AA batteries. I’m not much for flash photography so I didn’t try it. But the battery compartment was clean, so I see no reason it shouldn’t work.

If you like box cameras, also check out my reviews of some classic Kodak boxes, the No. 2 Brownie, Model D (here) and Model F (here), as well as the No. 2 Hawk-Eye Model C (here) and its 50th Anniversary of Kodak companion (here). Or look at my reviews of the Ansco B-2 Cadet (here) and Ansco Shur Shot (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I’ve had this camera for a few years, but have put off a minor repair it needed. The bit of plastic that is the red window around back had come unglued. Repairing it meant bending the film pressure plate to get it out of the way, and I was afraid of damaging it. I finally braved it, and with a bead of super glue the camera finally returned to fully usable condition. I bent the pressure plate back into place with no trouble, but unfortunately a little super glue squished out and dried visibly on the red plastic. Fortunately I could still read the markings on my film’s backing paper.

I loaded some Ilford FP4 Plus into the Tower Flash 120. This film expired in December of 1994 but was stored frozen, so I figured it would be okay. The box opens from the sides near the front, by pressing the small button on each side simultaneously.

Tall shadow

The smooth, easy shutter button guards against camera shake. You still need a steady hand, however, thanks to the slow shutter.

Front yard

Surprisingly reflective glass made the viewfinders hard to use. In all but bright, direct sunlight, I saw my silhouette in the viewfinders, which obscured my subjects.

Deck

Thanks to the small, reflective viewfinder, it’s hard to frame subjects. Every last photo I made was far from level. I straightened them all in Photoshop.

Garden

The lens is remarkably free of vignetting, and is soft only in the very corners.

Across the street

I shot the whole roll in my yard, as I sometimes do. Except for the balky viewfinders, the Tower Flash 120 was pleasant to use and returned decent results.

My vee dub

To see more from this camera, check out my Sears Tower Flash 120 gallery.

Remarkably, the Sears Tower Flash 120’s body is based on a camera Bilora made starting in 1935. That goes to show that the box had long been perfected, but was still viable as a family snapshot camera even that many years later. It’s flash attachment made it even more useful. I am unlikely to use this camera often because I enjoy my 1910s-era Kodak box cameras so much more. But if you are box curious, or your collection leans hard into boxes, you would be well served to find one.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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17 thoughts on “Sears Tower Flash 120

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    I’m always amazed that when you look at the history of Sears Tower camera offerings, how high quality a lot of those items were! By the time I became a knowledgeable “consumer”, it seems like we always had a suspicion of “house brand” items, no matter what they were. It seems like Sears really put a lot of time and effort into making valuable offerings under their personal brand. I still have a couple of Sears brand lenses knocking around in “K” mount, that are decent and competitive with the best aftermarket lenses.

    • You may recall that Sears also offered specialty catalogs, such as ones for tools, farm equipment, and photographic equipment. As of about 1970, the photo catalog offered Nikon cameras and other high-end options, not just Tower versions. If you go back to the post-WWI era, Sears sold very high quality kit houses, which were delivered to your town via railroad.

      Back to the present: I am always amazed (or maddened) that Sears could not transition into the internet era. After all, they already had a huge product mix, warehouses, trucks, retail outlets, and a loyal American and Canadian customer base. How did they blow all those advantages? How was this possible?

      Maybe this is another example that major retail empires never last more than about a century (think of the Great A&P Tea Company, Woolworth’s, Montgomery Wards, Jordan Marsh). If we are really lucky, Walmart will succumb sooner than a century.

      • I did not know that about Sears. All I knew was the Christmas catalog!

        Companies grow large and have to protect their old-line revenue streams even as the world changes. Especially public companies — “the street” won’t tolerate a temporary dip in profit while the company retools for the future.

    • I’ll try any camera I can get film for. I put off repairs because I don’t enjoy them, but if I am capable of them I will eventually do them!

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