This page offers an approach to make sense of the serial numbers on Wollensak lenses, and to correlate serial numbers with production dates. In the absence of definitive Wollensak production documents, any approach is a theory. The theory advanced below is based on detailed study of Wollensak products, trade literature, advertisements, and limited original technical documents. It is a work in progress, to be updated and improved as additional data comes to light. If you have information to correct or improve the table below, please drop me a line.
One main numbering series appears to span the length of Wollensak’s lens production. Wollensak initially applied this main numbering sequence only to their highly corrected lenses, so it is designated as the “Anastigmat Series” (AS) in the table below. The Anastigmat Series includes Velostigmats, Raptars, and essentially all Wollensak lenses with serial numbers except those specifically noted below. In addition, Wollensak applied separate numbering series to select non-anastigmatic lenses: the Petzval-design Vitax and Vesta, the soft focus Verito, the Series IIIa Extreme Wide Angle, and the Varium and Beach portrait lenses. Lastly, the Optar lenses Wollensak made for Graflex were originally included in the Anastigmat Series, but later branched into a separate series.
Using the table: Serial numbers in bold below are better characterized and assessed to have been produced in the year indicated, with an error range of plus or minus one year. Other serial numbers below are posited to bridge the gaps between bold numbers, with product appearance and availability consistent with the year indicated. These posited numbers are a best estimate with a potentially wider margin for error. Notes on methodology, caveats, and specific lens series information are found below the table.
Methodology: This project associated serial numbers with production years by evaluating thousands of Wollensak lens images, advertisements, and documents for changes in product availability, appearance, and any supplemental markings.
- Availability: Referencing the Compendium, this study constrained production dates on the serial numbers of specific products. For example, Wollensak’s Studio Shutters included a pneumatic bulb attachment from 1906-1915, and a wire (cable) release attachment from 1916 onward. A lens with the highest serial number observed in a “bulb” Studio can likely be associated with 1915, while the lowest number in a “wire” Studio can be similarly associated with 1916. As another example, the Velostigmat Series IV was introduced in 1920, and the 11×14 Series II Velostigmat focal length changed from 15.5” to 16” in 1922. A 15.5” Velostigmat Series II with a serial number higher than a series IV Velostigmat can be therefore be associated with 1920 or 1921. By identifying and overlaying dozens of such narrow production ranges, serial numbers fell into a reasonable and orderly sequence. Eras with frequent, well-documented product changes are the best characterized.
- Appearance: Even when product lines remained static over years, changes in product appearance help to further constrain production dates. For example, Wollensak appears to have used the stylized “Triangular O” font on lens name rings from 1923-1936. A 14” Series II Velostigmat with pre-stylized font on the name ring can therefore be assigned to 1922, the year the lens debuted. A lens with a name ring in plain, all caps font with a serial number slightly higher than a stylized lens’ serial number can likely be associated with 1937.
- Advertisements and Catalogs: Beginning in the 1940’s, Wollensak advertisements and product catalogs began to regularly feature photographs of lenses with visible serial numbers. This study tracked the appearance of specific lens serial numbers and assumed that the actual production date was at least three months prior to a particular serial number’s first appearance in a publication. For example, a serial number first appearing in an October 1947 issue of Popular Photography would be assigned to that same year, but a serial number first appearing in a February 1946 issue would be assigned to 1945.
- Supplemental Markings: Some Wollensak shutters have a date penciled or scratched onto the rear diaphragm ring, which is visible upon removing the rear lens cell. These dates are most often observed on Betax shutters, but may also be found on early Alphax shutters, and occasionally on some other Wollensak shutter types. These dates are confidently assessed to be testing or inspection dates, which are particularly valuable in dating lens serial numbers. This confidence is rooted in firsthand observations of identically placed and consistently formatted dates on scores of Wollensak shutters, including many examples of dates which can only plausibly be associated with contemporary production rather than later repair. These hand written dates appear to have been replaced with stamped markings on the back of Wollensak shutters around the end of 1947. In addition to shutter dates, any other available dated materials, such as receipts or shipping documents, were taken into account.
- Anastigmat: The very few online images of Wollensak’s Royal Anastigmat lenses show serial numbers in the low 6000s. That number is taken as the assumed starting point for the Anastigmat Series in 1906 with Wollensak’s acquisition of the Royal Anastigmat lens design from the Rochester Lens Company. Wollensak continued this numbering sequence with the name change to “Velostigmat” in 1908, with serial number 7235 visible in the 1909-1910 catalog. The rapidly growing number and variety of Wollensak lenses after World War I offers many opportunities to characterize serial numbers, though the error range is larger in the following period of relative product stability and decreasing production from the mid-1920’s through the eve of World War II. The Verito and Series IIIa lenses were included in the Anastigmat numbering sequence around 1942, and both of those product lines followed the Anastigmat Series numbering from this time until their discontinuation. 1943 poses a conundrum, with the Anastigmat Series reaching number 300000, but no serial numbers between 330000 and 399999 have been observed. Wollensak’s expanded Raptar line of postwar products, combined with the bounty of lenses pictured in advertisements and promotional materials, make the mid-1940’s through mid-1950’s exceptionally well characterized, and the clear peak of Wollensak’s lens production. In the first half of 1953, the Anastigmat Series reached number 999999, the limit of its six-digit format. Wollensak restarted numbering with AXXXXX, and at the same time split Optar lens serial numbers into a separate sequence with the format GXXXXX (G for Graflex). From the late 1950’s until the late 1960’s, Anastigmat Series numbers become increasingly difficult to date: product line changes are fewer and poorly documented, and shutters lack supplementary markings. The production dates given above for this era’s serial numbers are among the most speculative in the Anastigmat Series. Wollensak’s final lens serial numbers in the 1970’s are better characterized with the introduction of the Pro Raptar lenses in early 1970.
- Verito: The lowest Verito serial numbers observed, in the low 2000’s, appear on Studio shutters dated to around 1913. It is possible that this continues a numbering sequence in the 1000’s that began with Bodine’s Pictorial Lens (made by Wollensak) in 1910 and continued through the f/5 version of the Verito in 1911. Serial numbers appear exclusively on the Studio Shutters of Verito lenses until around 1919, when numbers begin to appear routinely on Verito lens name rings. The transition to the stylized “Triangular O” font and the presence of the Studio Shutter bulb/wire attachment on the 18” lens suggest 1923 and 1926, respectively, though the dates of serial numbers from 1927 to 1936 become increasingly speculative. By the transition to plain, all caps font on Verito name rings around 1937, it seems that Verito production had slowed drastically. The Verito was changed to the Anastigmat Series numbering sequence around 1942, which it retained until the Verito was discontinued in 1946.
- Series IIIa: The Series IIIa Extreme Wide Angle lens numbering series appears to have begun at 10000 with the lens’ introduction in 1922. The Series IIIa was changed to the Anastigmat Series numbering sequence around 1942, and the lens was replaced with a coated, air-spaced, anastigmatic design in 1946.
- Varium: The Varium portrait lens numbering series began at 6000 upon its introduction in 1926. Varium production appears to have been extremely limited, and likely concentrated prior to 1930. The question marks in the table above reflect uncertainty that any of this series were produced in the later years, even though the Varium remained in Wollensak catalogs through 1934.
- Beach Multi-focal: The lowest serial number observed on a Beach Multi-focal lens is 4, indicating that the numbering sequence started at 1. Contemporary accounts of the lens’ May 1929 premiere at the Photographer’s Association of America convention in Buffalo indicate that the Beach was an instant success, with Andrew Wollensak Jr. running out of sales forms and taking orders on scraps of paper. The Beach lens’s celebrated initial reception and uncommonly high price suggest that most were produced in 1929 during the short window between the May convention and the October onset of the Great Depression. An ambiguous date observed on the Betax shutter of a Beach lens around number 520 (near the end of the series) could be read as either 5-30 or 5-32. The table above chooses the latter interpretation, but either are consistent with a high volume of initial production quickly tapering off. The question mark in the table reflects uncertainty that any Beach lenses were produced in the later years, even though the Beach remained in Wollensak catalogs through 1934.
- Optar: Wollensak began producing Optar lenses for Graflex in 1942. Optar was a Graflex trade name, but the lens design was identical to Wollensak’s own Velostigmat and, later, Raptar lenses. Optar lenses were included in the Anastigmat Series from their introduction; the lowest Optar serial number observed to date is 278930. However, when the Anastigmat Series reached number 999999 in the first half of 1953, Optar serial numbers split into a separate sequence with the format GXXXXX (G for Graflex). No G00000 serial numbers have been observed, so this study assumes that the new Optar numbering series began at G10000. The Optar series spans an era of few documented product and design changes, making the above associations of serial number and production year highly speculative. Nevertheless, the posited dates fit the known contours of Wollensak and Graflex’s fortunes, as well as very limited production indications for later years.
Caveats and Areas for Improvement:
The numbering series and associated dates put forward in this study attempt to explain the most serial numbers encountered on Wollensak lenses in the most consistent way. Yet, over 72 years of production and more than a century of use there are undoubtedly outliers, exceptions, and missing pieces. For example, the Wollensak portrait lenses often re-badged and sold as Conley, Seroco, and other names appear to follow yet other numbering sequences. The serial numbers found on Wollensak’s Optimo and Studio shutters may provide valuable dating information as well, but more information is needed to draw conclusions. Access to additional Wollensak catalogs would further refine product appearance and availability, reducing uncertainty in production dates. Discovery of higher or lower serial numbers than those contained in the table above would improve understanding of the total lenses produced in each series. Lastly, serial numbers with supplemental age data (shutter dates, receipts, etc.) are warmly welcomed to improve and refine this resource. Please drop me a line if you have any of the above!
A Bit of Fun: Here are a few interesting ways to interpret the data in the table.
And the rarest Wollensak lens is. . . a tie!
Available serial numbers suggest that only about 250 Varium lenses were produced. This is comparable to the total number of 160mm and 210mm Pro Raptar lenses produced (the Rapax-mounted taking lens, not the enlarging Pro Raptar). The Pro Raptars appear to have been produced in a single run of consecutive serial numbers in 1970, observed to range from E56382 to E56591.