Robert Cornelius and the First Selfie

The world’s first “selfie,” a self-portrait taken by Cornelius in 1839. Prints and Photographs Division.

A 30-year-old man stood alone in the yard of his family’s Philadelphia gas lighting business. The year was 1839, and it was late October or early November. In front of him was a makeshift camera, its lens fashioned from an opera glass.

He’d already determined the daylight was adequate to expose the carefully prepared metal plate within the camera and take a photograph of himself. Last but not least, he had to remain motionless and gaze forward for 10 to 15 minutes — no easy task.

The man was Robert Cornelius, and people sometimes joke that he took the world’s first selfie that day when he posed in his yard, broodingly handsome with his collar upturned and his hair disheveled. But he accomplished much more than the term “selfie” implies.

“Taking a portrait is astounding in 1839,” said Rachel Wetzel of the Library’s Conservation Division. “Taking a self-portrait is a whole next level up from that. That portrait is incredibly significant.”

Cornelius’ picture, a daguerreotype, is considered the earliest extant photographic portrait in the world. The Library acquired it in 1996, along with other examples of Cornelius’ works, as part of the Marian S. Carson collection.

A collection of Cornelius material recently acquired by the Library included this original camera lens. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Now, the Library’s Cornelius holdings, already the largest anywhere, have grown even bigger: In December, Cornelius’ great-great-grand-daughter, Sarah Bodine, donated an important collection of his photographic materials and ephemera.

The trove includes a Cornelius daguerreotype and portraits of his children by other early Philadelphia daguerreotypists, along with Cornelius’ experimental camera lenses and papers associated with his business dealings and patent applications.

“The collection gives a much broader picture of Robert Cornelius at the Library, beyond the photographs we currently hold,” said Micah Messenheimer of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

It is thanks largely to Wetzel’s expertise in all things Cornelius that the Bodine collection made its way to the Library.

Before joining the Library in 2019, Wetzel worked as a photo conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia (CCAHA). There, she and a team of conservators drawn from across institutions, including two from the Library, conducted research on early daguerreotypes and how best to preserve them.

A film storage box used by Cornelius. Photo: Shawn Miller.

To deepen knowledge of Cornelius’ work and techniques, Wetzel also began compiling a database (which now resides at the Library) to document his photographs and their condition. Even though Cornelius photographed subjects for only three years, he was enormously successful, and his photos now exist in far-flung locations.

Just months before Cornelius took his self-portrait in 1839, Louis J.M. Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype process in France and published the formula. Cornelius’ collaborator, scientist Paul Beck Goddard, soon altered Daguerre’s formula for treating camera plates by combining bromine with iodine — Daguerre used just iodine.

The new treatment reduced exposure times — by a lot. So, instead of sitting in front of a camera for up to 25 minutes, a photographic subject had to remain still for only 30 seconds to two minutes.

“For portraiture, it was a big thing,” Wetzel said.

Most significantly, it made the daguerreotype process commercially viable. Cornelius set up Philadelphia’s first photo portrait studio to much acclaim. His portraits were so esteemed that Daguerre himself reportedly sent daguerreotypes from France in exchange for Cornelius’ work.

This daguerreotype shows the view from the window of Cornelius’ second- floor studio at 8th and Lodge. Prints and Photographs Division.

Publicity surrounding Wetzel’s quest to find and document Cornelius’ photography eventually brought her into contact with Bodine — and two other Cornelius descendants.

Robert Cornelius IV, who goes by Bob, was the first to get in touch. He brought his Cornelius daguerreotype to Wetzel at the CCAHA. Later, Bob brought his cousin from Connecticut, Albert Gee, another descendant, to show Wetzel his Cornelius materials.

Bodine found Wetzel, by then at the Library, through a Google search. Bodine had recently discovered Cornelius materials in her attic in New Jersey as she was downsizing to move. She had it in mind to donate the materials to a repository, but she wanted to know more about them first. So, she invited Wetzel to visit.

Wetzel brought Bob with her to New Jersey. He did not know Bodine, a cousin, beforehand. She descends from a different Cornelius child — Cornelius and his wife, Harriet, had eight children together.

Wetzel spent a day and a half with Bodine going over her materials. The collection includes one daguerreotype by Cornelius along with portraits of his family members and copious ephemera — deeds, calling cards, news clippings, a valentine to Harriet Cornelius from her husband, the eulogy he wrote for her in 1884 and locks of her hair and his.

Seven patent applications relate to improvements Cornelius invented for gas lighting, his family’s business, to which he returned after his brief but storied foray into photography.

A favorite item in Bodine’s collection is a box containing lenses wrapped in what looked like a cut-up nightshirt that still had a tag embroidered with a small “C” on it.

“Thinking about how the lens that might have been used to make that self-portrait could have been in that box was pretty thrilling for me,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel is continuing to study early daguerreotypes, analyzing how they age and ways to stabilize them. She’s now working with Messenheimer to create a database of every daguerreotype in P&P’s collection, documenting the condition of each with notes and photographs.

“While my work has focused on Cornelius,” Wetzel said, “all of the best practices that are being developed through the Cornelius project will be applied to ensuring the longevity of every daguerreotype at the Library.”

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2 Comments

  1. Jay Holmes
    July 25, 2022 at 9:45 am

    You mention “Even though Cornelius photographed subjects for only three years…” Why only 3 years? That seems so short in light of his success at producing such fine images.

  2. msd
    July 31, 2022 at 11:23 am

    His selfie looks surprisingly contemporary. The view from his window gives us a good view of everyday life in the 19th century. I’m glad Cornelius’s photographs and photographic materials have been recovered and preserved.

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