Historical photographs are among the most elusive and exciting finds for the family historian. Adding a face to the names of our ancestry can really bring our research to life – not to mention help identify any deep-rooted (pardon the pun) physical family resemblance on our family tree!
It’s a shame, then, that historical photographs are so hard to come by for the average genealogist and family history researcher.
If only our ancestors had the same easy access to technologies that we often take for granted in today’s world of hand-held digital cameras, in-built mobile phone cameras, and the abundant social media that help us share images instantly.
Indeed, we are inundated with photographs and imagery that help us visually document the world around us. Young people nowadays are almost certainly the most frequently photographed generation yet. We put this down to the recent rise of the ‘selfie’ phenomenon.
Short for ‘self-portrait photograph’, a selfie is simply a photo that has been taken by its subject. Selfies are a phenomenon among younger generations (and sometimes, cough, their parents), often uploaded on social media for ‘likes’.
Though the humble (or not so humble) selfie may, for all its vanity and self-publicity, seem so quintessentially ‘Gen Y’, in fact its historical roots date back to the early days of photography.
Here at findmypast, we decided to investigate the background of two early ‘selfie’ photographs from history and, while scouring through a vast array of historical photographs, we, learnt a fair bit about the history of photography itself along the way.
We now present to you – drum roll, please – two contenders for the title of the world’s first selfie.
Candidate 1: Robert Cornelius' self-portrait, 1839
According to the Library of Congress, this early daguerreotype was the “first photographic portrait”. It was taken by Robert Cornelius, an American metallurgist and pioneer of photography, around October 1839.
Along with chemist Paul Beck Goddard, Robert experimented with camera technology in order to reduce exposure times. This in turn made photographic portraiture possible.
This shot was reportedly taken outside the family store in downtown Philadelphia and, unlike today’s instantaneous selfies, capturing this photograph reportedly took five minutes of perfectly motionless staring!
To learn more about the photograph’s tousled-haired, cross-armed subject, we turned to findmypast US Census records.
The 1850 census records reveal that Robert Cornelius was born in 1809. Residing in Philadelphia, he and his wife Harriet had up to seven children at the time of this census. Here, his occupation is listed simply as ‘manufacturer’.
By this time, Robert had already moved on from the nascent photography world. Having opened one of the world’s first photographic studios in 1840, Robert returned to the family gas and lighting business after only a few years for reasons that remain unclear. He didn’t lose his inventive spark, however, having patented a solar lamp in 1843. The family business went on to become one of the largest lighting companies in America.
This affluence is reflected in the 1870 US census twenty years later, where Robert’s real estate was valued up to 50,000 dollars and personal estate was estimated at 100,000. His occupation was described more specifically here, although the final word is difficult to read: a ‘manufacturer gas (????)’.
By the time of the 1880 US census, Robert was 71 years old and a retired manufacturer. Here we learn for the first time that his father hailed from the Netherlands, while his mother was born in Ireland.
As for the ‘selfie’ itself? Historian Dr Michael Pritchard, director general of the Royal Photographic Society, UK, is unconvinced that this photograph was indeed a self-portrait.
“It’s likely he [Robert] may have had a friend or assistant to make the actual exposure,” Dr Michael Pritchard told the BBC. “It’s more likely the first ‘selfies’ were taken a bit later on.”
Candidate 2: A group of New York photographers, 1920
As you can see, our next contender – a photograph taken some 81 years later – is a very different image. Like many selfies today, the subject’s arm is outstretched toward the camera to prop it up; however, this particular camera was held up by two subjects, one on either side. Must have been one heavy camera.
Interestingly, the five people depicted in the photograph were all well-known American photographers: from left to right, Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core and Ben Falk. It was taken on the roof of Marceau’s photographic studio in New York.
Ian ‘Pirie’ MacDonald was arguably the best-known of these photographers. He made a name for himself in the early 1900s capturing images of some of the most powerful and famous figures in the world (including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson).
According to findmypast 1930 US census records, Pirie was born in Illinois in 1867 to a Scottish father and English mother.
As a well-known figure, Pirie makes several appearances among the extensive findmypast collection of American historical newspapers.
A report of his death in the Iola Register on 23 April 1942 gives insight into his life and times, and how he became a self-styled ‘photographer of men’.
The article notes that he even “refused to permit women in his studio, declaring they refused to sacrifice their vanity for a true portrait.”
Pirie’s photographic work lived on, as did the legend of his idiosyncracies. On January 16, 1923 (some three years after the selfie above), the Sandusky Star Journal published his tips for men having their portrait taken.
Our favourite is number 3: “If you want to look like a man with lots of fight and ‘go’ in you, select a photographer who can at least match you in physical strength and give you a bodily as well as a mental challenge.”
Later in the article, Pirie imparted his wisdom concerning the difference between males and females having their photographs taken: “Men want their photographs to reflect strength,” Pirie said. “Men think they want their pictures to look just like them until they see the results. Then you find they’re quite as vain as women.”
We can only imagine what Pirie would make of the selfie trend today.
Though we can’t decisively conclude that either of these images are indeed the world’s first ‘selfie’, both images reveal much about the history of photography.
And while it’s unlikely that either Robert Cornelius or Pirie MacDonald photographed our own ancestors, Robert’s technological innovations and Pirie’s influential portraiture both made a mark upon the art of photography itself. Their influence may well have trickled down to the local studios where our ancestors’ photographs were more likely to have been taken.
If you’re desperately chasing down old photographs to add faces to the names on your family tree, it may be worthwhile investigating the local photographic studios that operated near your ancestors and tracking down what happened to their files and negatives in case your forebear’s face is among them.
For the sake of family history and genealogy research, it’s a shame that selfies weren’t as common in our ancestors’ time – or is it?