Digging into the first selfie, from Philly!

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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!