History of the Selfie

One of my favorite things to write about is obscure holidays and sharing the history of them. I enjoy doing the research, and compiling it into a story form for you.

Friday, June 21st, is National Selfie Day. I love obscure history, so I figured why not tell all of you things that I learned about selfies.

To get to selfies, we first have to start with the camera. But before we can do that, we need to go back in time even further. Before cameras were invented, people preserved their likenesses in busts, paintings, or casts (molds). The camera or even the smartphone is merely just a tool for the time, rather than the spark of a movement. It is thanks to these inventions that we even knew what people in history even looked like.

The first camera to produce photographs was created in 1816 by  Nicéphore Niépce, a French inventor. Niépce continued to work on adapting and perfecting the process of making photographs. After he died, his partner continued to develop cameras. The process for making these early photographs was named for this partner, Louis Daguerre. The photographs themselves became known as daguerrotypes. The first daguerrotype was publicly unveiled in 1839.

That same year brought the first selfie. Robert Cornelius, an American, set up his camera. The process was incredibly slow, so he had time to remove the lens and get into position. After the photo developed, he wrote on the back “The first light photo ever taken, 1839.”

Robert Cornelius 1839 selfie

In 1888, George Eastman invented the first film camera, which he dubbed Kodak. These original cameras were equipped with enough film for 100 shots. Eastman continued to develop his film cameras. By 1900, he had invented the Brownie, a box camera that helped bring about snapshots. Within just 60 years of Robert Cornelius’ lengthy selfie, Eastman had developed instant photos. (Random fact that isn’t super relevant to the story: the Brownie was so popular that different versions of it were sold until the 1960s).

In 1914, Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna (yes THAT Anastasia) took a selfie on a Brownie and sent it to a friend. My sources credit her as the first teenager to take a selfie (she was 13 at the time).

Cameras continued to improve and develop. Shortly thereafter, the film industry took off. Moving pictures, later shortened to “movies” were able to be captured and edited. It was much easier to take photos.

The first selfie to be captured with the camera being held at arm’s length (like today) happened in 1920. It was taken and included the five main photographers from the Byron Company. This photography business was founded in New York City in 1892. It is still in business today, though it is run from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Technology continued to develop and improve during and after the second World War. In the 1970s, photo technology once again drastically improved with the development of instant cameras, such as the ever-famous Polaroid.

The word selfie did not come about until 2001 or 2002. An Australian man was seeking medical advice on an online forum and used the term “Selfie” to justify the poor quality of the photo. One source I looked at mention that Australians tend to shorten things by using “ie” (Barbie for barbecue, firie for firefighter, etc.).

In 2003, the Sony Ericcson Z1010 phone was the first phone to have a front-facing camera. Since then, every smartphone has come equipped with the same type of camera. This became so popular that in 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added “selfie” as a real and acceptable word.

So there you have it. The history of the selfie as we know it today. From daguerrotypes to our smartphones, we show that there is commonality between people and generations. I hope you learned something (I know I sure did!).

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