This guy in Streetview is standing near the spot where the world’s first #selfie portrait was taken in 1839.
Robert Cornelius was one of the first people to try to reproduce Louis Daguerre’s photographic technique after news of the breakthrough reach Philadelphia. A chemist working at his family’s gas lighting company, Cornelius started experimenting with different chemical combinations until he found a way to reduce exposure times so that a person to sit still long enough for a portrait. In October 1839 he took a picture himself “in the yard back of his store and residence, (old) 176 Chestnut Street, above Seventh (now number 710), in Philadelphia,” according to an oral history published half a century later (PDF). Cornelius recounts:
It was our business to make a great variety of articles of plated metal. Very soon afterwards, I made in the factory a tin box, and bought from McAllister, 48 Chestnut Street, a lens about two inches in diameter, such as was used for opera purposes. With these instruments I made the first likeness of myself and another one of some of my children, in the open yard of my dwelling, sunlight bright upon us, and I am fully of the impression that I was the first to obtain a likeness of the human face.
Remarkably, in 2014, the Cornelius and Co. building is still there on Chestnut Street, though barely recognizable, with an extra floor on top and extensive façade changes. It’s a discount drug store. The back is the narrow alley named Ionic Street, home to dumpsters and people wanting to stay out of sight. The yard is to the right of these dumpsters. With #selfie such a popular hashtag, Cornelius’s picture has circulated on a lot of internet lists as the “world’s first selfie.” But it’s historical significance is far greater: it is the first photographic portrait of our species. I’m not typically one for hyperbole, but we humans started seeing ourselves differently after that portrait.
I originally assumed the building on the right of the alley stood where the yard had been but a satellites turns up a surprise: the yard is still there! Looking at the 710 property from above, the buildings facing Chestnut and Ionic are separate – with a large open space in between! There are two sections that look almost to be garden beds.
Yo Philly, how has 710 Chestnut Street not been snatched up and turned into a museum of photographic history? The first floor could focus on nineteenth century Philadelphia innovation, with the still-existent inner courtyard turned into a tourist destination? It would be like catnip. What self-respecting modern tourist wouldn’t walk the few blocks from Independence Hall to take their picture at the very site of the world’s first selfie? I know Philly typically doesn’t respect any history past 1776 but come on!