Somewhere in a parking lot near you, there might just be a tiny old shack, perhaps converted into a drive-up coffee stand or some other small business. Chances are, this was once a Fotomat and, in its glory days, was painted a brilliant sky blue with a pyramid-shaped gold roof.

Cars waited in line impatiently, eager to relive their memories of a graduation day, or a vacation, or a baby’s first steps. Fotomats once dotted the landscape of our nation. Then, almost overnight, technology swept in with little mercy and Fotomat became as extinct as the film they once developed.

Drive-thru businesses always seem to emanate from the west, with it’s prominent car culture, and Fotomat was no exception. It was started in 1965 by a man named Preston Fleet. He envisioned a small store where customers could drive up, drop off their film, and pick up their photos the next day. A simple idea perhaps, but a lucrative one. He opened the first Fotomat in Point Loma, California. A decade later, there were over 4,000 of these little blue shacks across the country.

In the late 70s, Fotomat decided to expand their horizons by venturing into the video rental business. You picked a movie from a catalog, called your local Fotomat to order it, then picked it up at the drive-through. The price was steep, $12 for five days, but there was very little competition, at least at first.

As mom and pop video stores started appearing on every corner, Fotomat’s rental business took a beating. But that was nothing compared to the blow struck to them by the advent of one-hour developing. Suddenly, their promise of one-day developing seemed woefully inadequate, and by the time digital cameras began appearing, Fotomats were rapidly disappearing.

For a kid, Fotomat could be a puzzling place. How did they develop that film in that tiny shack? How did the smiling employee in the blue polo shirt even enter the place? And for that matter, where did the employees go to the bathroom? So many things to ponder while you waited for your film. Then they handed you the envelopes with all those new pictures inside, and in your excitement, you forgot all about those nagging questions … until next time.

Do you remember going to Fotomat? Is there a former shell of one in a neighborhood parking lot nearby? Were you puzzled in childhood by your own Fotomat mysteries. We hope you’ll share all of that and more with all of us in our comments section. Help us reminisce about these great little blue buildings from yesteryear, here at Retroland.

8 Responses to “Fotomat”

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  1. Shannon says:

    My dad worked at the A&P and the was a Fotomat in the parking lot, one day we had a pretty bad snowstorm and when he was leaving the parking lot my dad slid into the Fotomat, geez.

    • Judy says:

      The Fotomat I worked at was in the A&P parking lot also. I always worried in the winter about someone sliding into the booth. It was at the bottom of a slight incline. No one did while I worked there.

  2. Lindsay says:

    I have 3 fotomat film cartridges that my mother found while cleaning. Is there any where i could get them developed now?? they are rather old so we didnt know. We have no idea what is on them and would really like to see… any ideas??? thanks!

  3. Judy says:

    I was wondering why Fotomat closed and found this site. I use to work for Fotomat in 1975. I loved working there. I met lots of interesting people. In the summer we were so busy. It was not rare to bring in 1000.00 dollars in one shift of work. This is bringing back many memories. At one point I was one of the top ten Fotomates in the Detroit Michigan area. Thanx for the memories.

    • RP says:

      I worked for Fotomat in Omaha in 1981. First in the kiosk, then in the office here. I still have the visor, an old shirt, and my wife’s (who I met at Fotomat) blue jacket. Not only were the people interesting, but so were some of the photos dropped off for developing.

  4. G. Mosholder says:

    I worked at a service station in the Naples section of Long Beach, CA that had a fotomat kiosk on the lot. I see that you mention blue uniforms, but I distinctly remember the gals that worked at this location wore dresses that had a narrow horizontal stripe pattern alternating in yellow and red(narrow stripes).

  5. J riley says:

    i was one of the first fotomates in Dallas in 1968. Seems I recall wearing a yellow hat of some sort??? Such fun memories

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