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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pho­tog­ra­phy of Lud­wig Wittgen­stein Dis­played by Archives at Cam­bridge

Har­ry Tay­lor Brings 150-Year-Old Craft of Tin­type Pho­tog­ra­phy into the Mod­ern Day

Alfred Stieglitz: The Elo­quent Eye, a Reveal­ing Look at “The Father of Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy”

Ansel Adams Reveals His Cre­ative Process in 1958 Doc­u­men­tary

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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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