Washington, D.C.: The Early Years

Washington Monument as it stood for 25 years. Photo by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03248

Washington Monument as it stood for 25 years. Photo by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03248

Ask any American to identify the Washington Monument or the U.S. Capitol, and it is likely they could.  But would they recognize – or be surprised by – those structures as they looked in the first century of the nation’s capital?

A newly expanded reference aid provides glimpses of the city as it evolved: Washington, D.C., Sights and Structures Before 1880:  Selected Images from the Collections of the Library of Congress.

For example: Here stands the Washington Monument as it looked for nearly 25 years.  Construction began in 1848, but when funds ran out, the obelisk was less than one third its planned height. When construction resumed, stone had to be drawn from a new quarry. The color change is visible to this day.

If shown the 1846 daguerreotype below, would you recognize it as the U.S. Capitol? The building was restored to this state following its near destruction by fire when the British invaded the city during the War of 1812. When new wings more than doubled the length of the building, this dome appeared too small, and so was replaced by the one we know today. And the new dome was made of cast-iron – a much more fire-resistant choice than the wood dome it replaced.  The dome, with the Statue of Freedom capping it, was completed near the end of the American Civil War.

[United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., east front elevation]. Daguerreotype photo by John Plumbe, ca. 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03595

[United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., east front elevation]. Daguerreotype photo by John Plumbe, ca. 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03595

The Prints and Photographs Division has a rich array of images of early Washington, D.C.  By exploring the reference aid featuring a selection of those images, you can:

Sources: History of the United States Capitol, Architect of the Capitol;  History of the Washington Monument, National Park Service; Architectural Timeline of the White House, White House Historical Association.

Learn More:

 


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