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.
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:
- Watch the city grow and change through its first century in the General Views section.
- The White House was also burnt by the British. See how it looked after the conflagration, both in the immediate aftermath and once rebuilt.
- See how the city looked during the American Civil War.
- Try out the search tips to find more images of Washington, D.C.
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.
- The War of 1812: Selected Images from the Collections of the Library of Congress offers an array of visual materials from both sides of the conflict.
- Learn more about building of the U.S. Capitol in the online exhibit Temple of Liberty.
- Researching Historic Washington, D.C. Buildings offers guidance for locating images of all types of buildings, from a rowhouse to the White House.