10 Pivotal Moments in the History of the Selfie

Jonnathan Coleman
8 min readApr 10, 2018
Unidentified woman taking a mirror selfie circa 1900 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Everybody and their grandmother knows what a selfie is: It’s an image of one’s self, taken by one’s self. There are so many different types it’s impossible to name them all. The mirror selfie, the gym selfie, and the duck-face selfie are some of the more popular ones.

Studies say the average Millennial will take more than 25,000 selfies in their lifetime. They spend more than an hour every week taking selfies. Instagram hosts hundreds of millions of selfies and 1,000 selfies are uploaded to the platform every 10 seconds.

Let’s take a look at where all these selfies came from.

1. In 1433 Jan Van Eyck Paints a Self-Portrait

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban - Credit: Wikipedia

It’s likely that self-portraits have been around since the dawn of time, but it’s nearly impossible to track down the very first one. For all we know a hieroglyph on the side of an Egyptian pyramid was a pharaoh drawing a picture of himself, but since that can’t be proved, it’s widely believed the first self-portrait on panel was painted in 1433 by Jan Van Eyck.

It’s an oil painting titled, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. The man isn’t wearing a turban but actually a chaperon, which is something people wore in 1433.

The portrait has sat in the National Gallery in London since 1851. It was painted at the beginning of The Renaissance and once mirrors became higher quality, self-portraits took off. Millennials aren’t the only ones obsessed with selfies.

2. In 1839 Robert Cornelius Takes the First Selfie

Robert Cornelius - Credit: Wikipedia

In 1839, French inventor Louis Daguerre introduced daguerreotypy to the world. It was the first photographic process available to the public, but it was much more complex than snapping a photo today.

A daguerreotypist had to polish a sheet of silver-plated copper, expose it to a camera, treat it with vapors, treat it again with liquid chemicals, rinse it, dry it, and then seal it behind a protective glass enclosure. It wasn’t for everybody.

One day, 30-year-old Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia decided to make his own Daguerreotype. He was a skilled silversmith, lamp maker, and amateur chemist, and his first Daguerreotype was of himself.

Cornelius used a box fitted with a lens to create the image. He uncovered the lens, ran into frame, posed for several minutes, and then ran back and covered up the lens. The image was taken outside his family’s lamp store. It’s considered the first selfie.

3. The First Revolving Selfie — 1865

Gaspard-Felix Tournachon - Credit: Wikipedia

In 1865, French photographer, journalist, and novelist Gaspard-Felix Tournachon (nickname: Nadar) created a revolving selfie. This might even be the first GIF ever.

Nadar photographed himself a dozen times as he slowly rotated in a swivel chair. He then stitched all the photos together to make a rotating selfie. His ingenuity back in 1865 foreshadowed a lot of things to come in the future of photography.

4. The Kodak Brownie Camera — 1900

Kodak Brownie - Credit: Wikipedia

In 1884, American entrepreneur George Eastman patented a film roll he had been working on for years. By 1888 he perfected it and his first camera went on sale that year. It was called the Kodak and it came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 pictures. The only problem was the entire camera had to be sent to the factory for processing and reloading when the roll was finished. Eastman tweaked the invention and released his next version in 1900. It was called the Kodak Brownie and it changed photography forever.

The camera cost just $1 (~$30 in 2018)and users could easily change rolls of film. The rolls were affordably priced and finished rolls could be sent to the Kodak factory for processing.

The Brownie was such a hit that its models remained on sale for the next 60 years. People were encouraged to photograph everything and Eastman himself encouraged users to find the perfect “Kodak moment.”

Who knows how many selfies were taken during this time, but because of its ease of use and affordability, people photographed everything and anything. The “snapshot” was born and public photography took off.

5. In 1914 — The First Famous Mirror Selfie

Anastasia Nikolaevna - Credit: The Atlantic

The Kodak Brownie took the world by storm and everybody was using it — even the royal family of Russia. Anastasia Nikolaevna was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II — the last emperor of Russia. Her and her family were executed by the Bolshevik secret police when she was only 17 years old. Four years earlier she snapped what might be the first famous mirror selfie.

She posed in front of a mirror and snapped a selfie using her Kodak Brownie camera when she was 13 years old. She sent the photo to a friend and on the back of the picture she wrote, “I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling.”

If you thought teenage girls posing in front of mirrors and snapping selfies was a Millennial phenomenon, you thought wrong.

6. In 1966 Buzz Aldrin Takes the First Selfie in Outer Space

Buzz Aldrin - Credit: Wikipedia

One of the most famous selfies in history was taken by American engineer and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin is most known for walking on the moon with Neil Armstrong as part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, but in 1966 he made history by snapping the first selfie in outer space.

The Gemini 12 space mission was the final mission of the Gemini program and Aldrin was a rookie pilot at the time. The purpose of the mission was to prove astronauts could work in space. Aldrin successfully completed a two-hour space walk, photographed stars, and did other space chores. During his walk he found extra time to snap a selfie that would go down in history.

7. The Word ‘Selfie’ Appears Online in 2002

Message Board Credit: ABC.net

Where did the word “selfie” come from? Today it seems like an obvious description for the image of one’s self, but Robert Cornelius, Buzz Aldrin, and Anastasia Nikolaevna didn’t label their pics as selfies. It wasn’t until 2002 the word became common.

In September of 2002 an Australian man named “Hopey” posted a photo of his busted lip on an image-hosting website. He then went to a message board and wrote, “Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

He added a link to the photo and it was the first time anybody dubbed their image a “selfie” online. It all started from a drunken night out and a 21st birthday party. Later in 2003 another Australian blog post went live with the words “selfies” and “selfy.” The sun rises in the East, and so did the word “selfie.”

8. In 2003 — Front-facing Phone Cameras

Photo by lifesimply.rocks on Unsplash

There was a time when people actually took selfies and had no idea what they looked like. Can you imagine that? People took blind selfies and hoped they came out good. Today the front-facing phone camera is more of a necessity than a keypad.

The first front-facing phone cameras were introduced way back in 2003. The cameras were designed with conference calls in mind, but the selfie might be its most widespread function today.

9. In 2011 the First Selfie Hashtag (#selfie) Appears on Instagram

In October of 2010 photo-sharing app Instagram launched and quickly took off — registering 10 million users in a year. On January 16, 2011 the first image with the hashtag selfie (#selfie) was uploaded to the app by user Jennifer Lee.

The image wasn’t actually uploaded with the the selfie hashtag in the caption. On January 27 — when Instagram began supporting hashtagged words — Jennifer Lee added the tag to her caption, and a trend was born.

Today millions of #selfies have been uploaded to the site and some of the most famous personalities in the world have taken part in the trend.

10. Selfie Enters the Official Lexicon — 2013

Photo by Ben Weber on Unsplash

Every year Oxford Dictionaries analyzes the usage of 150 million words in the English language to crown a ‘Word of the Year.’ According to Oxford Dictionaries, usage of the word “selfie” increased 17,000% over the course of the year, and in 2013 the word beat out “showrooming” and “bitcoin” to be crowned the winner.

Oxford Dictionaries defines the word as, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” If that wasn’t enough to solidify its standing in the English language, it became one of 150 new words to be added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2014.

Both 2013 and 2014 were big years for the word and it became bigger when Oscar host Ellen Degeneres snapped one of the most viral selfies in history.

It looks like selfies are here to stay because they’ve been around for centuries.