History of the “selfie”

Whether sitting in a car or performing a dangerous task, it seems that in today’s day and age, snapping a “selfie” is an appropriate thing to do just about anywhere.  After all, why wouldn’t all your adoring fans want to see what you look like as you gaze non nonchalantly into the distance while standing in front of your bathroom mirror?  Perhaps the bigger question is when did this tradition begin?


Wikipedia defines the word selfie as  “a self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a digital camera or camera phone held in the hand or supported by a selfie stick. Selfies are often shared on social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual. Most selfies are taken with a camera held at arm’s length or pointed at a mirror, rather than by using a self-timer.”


Turns out the first recorded selfie dates back longer than you might think.  In 1839 American photographer and chemist Robert Cornelius (see above) was in the back of his parents store experimenting with his camera.  At some point, he got the idea to take a picture of himself.  At this time, cameras had only just become commercially available.  They were essentially a sealed box filled with chemicals and other materials that would etch an image onto a copper sheet plated with silver once it had been exposed to light by removing the camera’s lens cap.  This process took anywhere from 1 to 15 minutes to complete, as the image had to be exposed to light long enough for the chemicals to do their thing.  Robert Cornelius would have set the camera down, uncovered the lens cap, ran into the shot for anywhere from 1 to 15 minutes, replaced the cap and then developed the photo.  On the back he wrote, “The first light picture ever taken. 1839.”

Four years later, in 1843, Cornelius was back at it, capturing this picture of himself nonchalantly pouring chemicals into a beaker.


By the 1900’s, the Kodak Brownie Box had been invented.  This camera was much smaller, affordable, and mass produced. The popularity of the “selfie”, or photographic self portraits as they were called at the time, began to rise. Because this was still a fairly new technology, just recently made accessible to the general public, experimentation was a must.  What better way to experiment, then to turn the camera on yourself?  It was a matter of convenience.

Kodak Brownie

Kodak Brownie

The first record of a teenager snapping a selfie in the mirror and sending it to a friend was in 1914.  Anastasia Nikolaevna, of Russia, wrote in a letter that was sent with the portrait, “I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling.”


Although these types of pictures have been around for decades, it was not until 2004 with flickr’s use of #selfie, that the phrase really took off.  From there it spread to all the various social media platforms until finally, in 2013, it earned a spot in the Oxford dictionary.  Today, love them or hate them, Selfies are commonplace and do not seem to be going anywhere.

I am sure that Robert Cornelius, in the back of his parent’s store experimenting with his first camera, had no idea what the implications of this seemingly innocent act would be or the title wave it would create.

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