Philadelphia is a city of many national firsts. First zoo. First computer. First row houses. First stock exchange. First lending library. First volunteer fire squad. First paper mill. First public parks. First Thanksgiving Day parade. First department store (Wanamaker’s). And now, we learn that the world’s first selfie was taken in Philadelphia.*
The above self-portrait (that’s apparently what selfies used to be called), which resides at the Library of Congress, was taken by Robert Cornelius in Philadelphia in October 1839, 174 years before Jim Gardner would post a selfie. The first-generation American, born to Dutch immigrants, is considered a pioneer of photography. He took the photo–a daguerreotype–while standing outside of his family’s Philadelphia lamp store. Experts say that Cornelius had to remain still for several minutes to obtain the final product.
Written on the back of the photograph: “The first light picture ever taken. 1839.”
From the Library of Congress website:
Daguerre announced his invention of a photographic method to the French Academy of Sciences in August 1839. That October, a young Philadelphian, Robert Cornelius, working out of doors to take advantage of the light, made this head-and-shoulders self-portrait using a box fitted with a lens from an opera glass. In the portrait, Cornelius stands slightly off-center with hair askew, in the yard behind his family’s lamp and chandelier store, peering uncertainly into the camera. Early daguerreotypy required a long exposure time, ranging from three to fifteen minutes, making the process nearly impractical for portraiture.
* Most other stories that you read about the world’s first selfie being taken in Philadelphia will state that the world’s first selfie may have been taken in Philadelphia or that the world’s first selfie was probably taken in Philadelphia, but until we see another selfie dated prior to 1839, we’re inclined to claim this as yet another Philadelphia first, thank you very much.