See The First “Selfie” In History Taken by Robert Cornelius, a Philadelphia Chemist, in 1839


On November 19, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “selfie” had been deemed their Word of The Year. The term, whose first recorded use as an Instagram hashtag occurred on January 27, 2011, was actually invented in 2002, when an Australian chap posted a picture of himself on an internet forum and called it a “selfie”. While devices for taking photos of oneself have been available for many years prior to the proliferation of the smartphones responsible for this phenomenon, the history of the selfie dates back to the origins of photography itself.

As the Public Domain Review notes, the first recorded instance of the selfie harkens back to what may have been the first photographic portrait. In 1839, a young Philadelphia chemist named Robert Cornelius stepped out of his family’s store and took a photograph of himself:

He took the image by removing the lens cap and then running [into the] frame where he sat for a minute before covering up the lens again. On the back he wrote “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

Cornelius’ striking self-portrait was, apparently, indicative of his knack for photography; an entry in Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1840 reads:

… As a Daguerreotypist his specimens are the best that have yet been seen in this country, and we speak this with a full knowledge of the specimens shown here by Mr. Gouraud, purporting to be, and no doubt truly, by Daguerre himself. We have seen many specimens by young Cornelius, and we pronounce them unsurpassable—they must be seen to be appreciated.

As a final consolatory note to those linguistic stalwarts whose blood boils at this bit of Australian slang entering the lexicon, have no fear—the Oxford Dictionaries Online is very, very different than the Oxford English Dictionary.

via The Public Domain Review

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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Comments (12)
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  • SimOne says:

    Isn’t this just an example of a ‘timed’ photo, rather than a “selfie”? Ever since I’ve owned a digital camera, where one can set a timer option, I’ve been taking photos of myself. I thought a “selfie” was a photo taken while holding the camera. (I know… a fine line.)

    • Antonio Anderson says:

      That may b a notable distinction, but doesn’t it appear to you, as it does to me, that he he holding the trigger. I’m not sure if timers would have existed for cameras at that point. I’m also too lazy to confirm it just to satisfy self-interest.

    • Bart says:

      The Urban Dictionary, an absolute authority in words like this if you ask me, holds mostly definitions that allow for ‘timed photos’.

  • DrunkDrake says:

    Isn’t that Adam Ant circa 1982?

  • Sean Culver says:

    I’m pretty unhappy with the word. The self portrait is an art historical tradition going back far further then photography. You might as well just start calling works created by philosophers “thinkies”.

    • lazybumranch says:

      Sean- I guess you have stumbled upon the difference- No respectable self-portrait artist captured themselves making that stupid freakin” “duck face”

  • Albert says:

    I believe the main difference between the pre-internet ‘selfies’ (among which I include painted selfportraits) and the selfie phenomenon of today is the massive scale of it. This makes it possible to compare the way we perceive ourselves and want to be perceived. And what do we see when we make those comparisons? We are all te same:nn

  • Pennywise says:

    Very good looking subject too.nn

  • i would love to live a day in the life of a man in this era

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