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!

The 1850 census records reveal that Robert Cornelius was born in 1809. Residing in Philadelphia. Having opened one of the world’s first photographic studios in 1840.

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).

(What’s written in the Cutout:
By Pirie MacDonald
1. Choose Your photographer more carefully than your tailor.
2. If you want to look decorative go to a photographer who specializes in women’s pictures
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.
4. Don’t expect a good picture from a photographer who can’t arouse your interest and draw you into a controversy.
5. Don’t take your wife with you.
6. Don’t be photographed unless you are feeling fit.
7. Don’t expect ‘Stunt”‘ Photography of freak effects to impress men who may see your picture.
8. Don’t dress up for a photograph: look just as you ordinarily do.
9. Don’t think how you are going to look.
10. Don’t insist that your photograph must look exactly as you really do look. if you do, you’ll be disappointed.)
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.