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Time Traveling to the First Selfie: Tracing the Origins of Self-Portraiture 200 Years Ago

And now you have a thousand of yesterday's solo in your gallery.

Time Traveling to the First Selfie: Tracing the Origins of Self-Portraiture 200 Years Ago
Randy Meeks

Randy Meeks

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While the word “selfie” may not have been coined until September 13, 2002, the practice had been around for a while in Australia as a synonym for, well, taking a photo of oneself. Before smartphones with front-facing cameras, it was a bit hit or miss, but people managed somehow. Because it may seem like a modern invention, but selfies had their moment of glory in the era of Polaroid cameras… And there are quite a few individuals who want to claim credit as their inventors.

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On one hand, we have Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis claiming to be the first to do it in a movie with “Thelma & Louise.” On the other hand, there are those who correct the error, pointing out that Madonna was actually the first to take a selfie on screen in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” a few years prior. Then we have Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, who also claim to be the creators of the invention. But in the end, none of them can claim the title. The first selfie in history is about to turn two hundred years old. Yes, you read that correctly.

In 1839, Robert Cornelius, a young man from Philadelphia, was experimenting with a new invention from France: the daguerreotype. In other words, it was the first photographic process presented to the general public. And the first thing Cornelius thought of was, of course, taking a photo of himself. It happened in October. After several attempts, he discovered that the key to taking a good selfie was to remain completely still for 10 to 15 minutes. Compared to now, that’s quite a long time.

Cornelius’ self-portrait not only marks the first selfie in history but also the first photograph to clearly depict a person in the United States (while examples can be found in other countries as early as 1837). You might think that Cornelius struck it rich at the time, but the truth is quite different: he opened a photography store (the second in the world) and became a fashionable figure for a few years.

However, as photography became more popular, Cornelius closed his shop and began creating lamps in the family business. By the end of his life, he had enough money to provide for his eight children, and it was only years later that his famous photograph gained recognition. From here on, there are many “firsts,” from the first couple to use a tree branch as a selfie stick in 1934 to the first mobile phone with a built-in front-facing camera in… 2003!

So the next time you get frustrated after pouting for a couple of minutes without looking good, think that before you there was a man from the 19th century who decided to stay still for 15 minutes to see how he turned out. That’s called dedication.

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Randy Meeks

Randy Meeks

Editor specializing in pop culture who writes for websites, magazines, books, social networks, scripts, notebooks and napkins if there are no other places to write for you.

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