Selfie is a real word. Ask the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and others. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the world was a better place when it wasn’t. But it is. And this, according to several sources, is the very first one.

Not that Van Gogh and others hadn’t painted portraits of themselves, but photographically speaking, it was Robert Cornelius who, in 1839, pointed a camera at himself for the first time. Selfies weren’t quite so impromptu back then, as photographic exposures took minutes if not hours to achieve. None of that explains why Mr. Cornelius didn’t feel it worthwhile to comb his hair. Still, his slightly worried expression does far more than his tonsorial discombobulation (see the words we throw at you!) to show his mood at the time.

In early photographs, by the way, people were discouraged from smiling. This has led to the impression that everyone in the 19th century was miserable, but it’s more a function of the long exposure time required by portait photography. Even when exposure times dropped to mere seconds in the 1860s, it was still quite a bit easier to keep from moving when your face was plastered with a foul-looking grimace.

It is that fact more than any other that explains why the first selfie looks so grim and is devoid of photobombs.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.