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.

The First Photography

The 19th century saw the invention of, at the time, an incredibly new and exciting media: photography.

The first surviving photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce with a camera obscura in 1826 or 1827, titled View from the Window at Le Gras. He had made a heliograph from an engraving of Pope Pius VII in 1822, but when he tried to duplicate it years later it was destroyed, making his later photograph the one that was remembered.

The view from the upstairs window of Niecpes estate -- the first permanent photograph.

The view from the upstairs window of Niécpe’s estate: the first surviving photograph.


The camera obscura is a simple device that uses a light projection box to project the image of its surroundings on a screen, which can then be traced or engraved onto material.

The first camera obscura was used to watch a solar eclipse in 1544. Of course, it took a few centuries after that to discover all that the camera obscura could be used for – most notably photography.

The first accessible method of photography came from Niécpe and Louis Daguerre, though Niécpe died before the invention was complete. Called the daguerrotype, this method used a copper plate coated with silver treated with iodine vapor for light sensitivity. Mercury vapor was used for development and salt fixed the image.

The Susse Fréres Daguerrotype camera from 1939.

The Susse Fréres Daguerrotype camera from 1939.

Daguerrotype cameras were large and boxy, but compared to former photography methods, they were quite streamlined (check out our article about the photo cousin of the daguerrotype: the tintype.)

George Eastman’s 1885 invention of film led to much smaller and more accessible cameras: his Kodak film was made to be sent by the customer to be developed at a factory.

And you probably know how successful that turned out to be.

Stay tuned for part II of the history of photography!