Selfies haven’t always been taken with smart phones. As long as there have been cameras, there have been people who wanted to take photos of themselves. The world’s first selfie lives at the Library of Congress — and it was taken in 1839.
From the LOC 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. (Source: “Photographic Material,” by Carol Johnson. In Gathering History: the Marian S. Carson Collection of Americana, 1999, p. 100)
Robert Cornelius had quite the way with the camera, it seems. As Open Culture notes via an excerpt from Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1840:
There is a young gentleman of this city, by the name of Robert Cornelius, one of the firm of the well known house of Cornelius, Son & Co., who has more genius than he yet supposes himself to possess. As a designer in the way of his profession, he has no equal; as a ventriloquist—but here we are getting into private life:—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. Catching a shadow is a thing no more to be laughed at. Mr. Cornelius, in one matter, has outstripped the great master of the art, a thing, by the way, peculiar to our countrymen; he has succeeded in etching his designs onto the plate, from which they cannot be removed by any effort. A few more experiments in this way, and we shall do without engravers—those very expensive gentlemen.
Cornelius wrote on the back of the photo (thank goodness!), which is why we can so exactly date the photo:
The first light picture ever taken. 1839.
The photograph can’t be touched because it’s too fragile. io9 and Open Culture both have additional info about Robert Cornelius.
h/t Public Domain Review / @iliablinderman / Open Culture