The History of the Selfie: And it All Began 1839…

And the 2013 award for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is…. Selfie. Now folks, for all of you that are worried that the English language is going down the toilet, let’s keep in mind that “selfie” is part of the Oxford Dictionary Online, and not the Oxford English Dictionary, and the two are very different. The ODO focuses on current and practical usage, while the OED shows how words and meanings have changed over time. Basically, fad words like “twerk” can be put in the ODO and taken out, but words aren’t really ever removed from the OED.

Now that we’ve got that settled, how does O.D. define the word of the year? Selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Yep that sounds about right, but why is this the word of the year now? How long have selfies been around for?

While 2013 may be the year of the selfie, they were here long before 2013.

The First Selfie?


Who is this dapper fellow? Meet the man who took the very first selfie in 1839. Robert Cornelius, a Philadelphia photographer, is believed to be the first person to turn the camera on himself, or at least to document doing so. And he looks more composed than most selfies taken these days, huh?

But What About Self Portraits? 

Much like my post on when social media began, do you really need a camera to take a selfie? A camera is not necessarily the only things that captures the essence of a selfie. In fact, were cave paintings the first instance of selfies?

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 1.38.38 PM

The Lascaux Caverns in France are famous for their Paleolithic cave paintings, which are estimated to be 17,300 years old. Was this the first instance of a caveman trying to recreate his own image? Painting a selfie on a rock wall?

And what about self portraits, are they in a sense selfies as well? With the invention of the mirror, artists were more easily able to paint/draw themselves, and create their own selfies. In the 15th and 16th centuries Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo hopped on the selfie-art train. In the 17th century, Rembrandt sketches his own selfies – below you see him doing the famous selfie lip pout.


Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 2.05.05 PMAnd lets not forget about Vincent Van Vogh’s collection of self portraits from the 19th century. So even though the technology of the modern day selfie did not exist yet, the idea of the selfie has been around for a long time.

The Selfies of Today

So selfies have been around for a long time, but they are certainly different in todays world. Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci had skills that not everyone possessed, but now anyone can create/take a selfie with camera. And with camera-phones, everyone is carrying a camera all the time. People now have the ability to take a picture anytime and at any place. Not to mention that with front-facing cameras on phones, taking a selfie has never been easier. And lets not forget how simple it is to share selfies. Famous painters spent countless hours creating one self portraits on a piece of paper or canvas, and that one copy could be owned by one person; as a result not many people got to see it. But with Instagram, Facebook, and other forms of social media, sharing a selfie has never been easier. Lets pause for a second and think about the number of selfies that are sent via snapchat – we know that 70% of Snapchat users are women, but I wonder what percentage of Snapchats sent are selfies?


The Selfies of Tomorrow

It is clear that selfies have changed a lot from past to present, so I wonder – what will they be like in the future? Terms for selfies are already changing; “wefie” is a selfie that is taken by multiple people and “belfie” is a bottom-half selfie (think Kim Kardashian). will soon be a thing of the present. And Wired has an article that argues that the drone sof the future won’t kill people, they will take selfies of people. Will we no longer have to pull a phone out of our pockets to take a selfie? Will a robot just do it for us? And will that change the entire idea of a selfie, since they could look like another person just took the photo?


Regardless of what selfies will be like in the future, I do think that they are here to stay. Much like social media, selfies fulfill human needs. They help people explore themselves and create a social identity. They can be normalizing; there is a reason why many celebrities take one selfie after another. Lastly, selfies help people tell stories and make it possible to create a life narrative through images; people like Margo’s teacher  take pictures of themselves every day and make a photo diary. How cool is it that we can see minute changes in a person’s face over 30 years? The selfie culture is not new, it is just more widespread and has become hot topic because of social media. People have always been taking and creating selfies, it just has never been so easy to make and distribute one before. So should we really be so worried about selfies? I say embrace the selfie. Oxford Dictionary has. And who knows – maybe “selfie” will make the move from the ODO to the OED in the future.



  1. kathrynkavner · ·

    Interesting take on the topic. While I think that there is a significant difference between a self-portrait and a selife, I bet Van Gough would take some pretty awesome Instas. Even though today the technology exists for anyone to take a selfie, doing a meaningful self-portrait is still a means of artistic expression. (I think you could make a pretty solid argument that artistic expression is not a necessary component of a selfie – although it may exist in some cases).

    Your bit about the futuristic selfie-drones is really cool — not something I would have ever thought of. It would be a fun way for restaurants or bars to engage their customers…take drone-pics of them and post to their fan pages/Instagrams/wherever.

  2. Hey Sydney- I agree with Kathryn, you propose a very different outlook on this commonly talked about subject. While I see your argument for artists being the first to embrace “selfies,” I would have to argue that the first selfie came form the invention of the front-facing camera. I found this really interesting article about the evolution of a cell phone’s use as a camera, that I thought related well to this topic of discussion.
    A point I found extremely interesting from the article is that the front-facing camera was first invented for applications like FaceTime and Skype, and was then later adapted for the use of “selfies.” I think it is fascinating how far cell phone cameras have come with the adoption of the front-facing camera.

    It really is amazing how common selfies are in today’s society, which is why I am not at all surprised that it is the Oxford Online Dictionary word of the year. Selfies have been a common theme of discussion in class this semester from my teacher’s blog (thanks for the shout-out!) to Kristie’s presentation on the Pope even having selfies!

    With all this talk of “selfies” in social media I wonder if society is becoming a bit narcissistic? Would you agree or disagree?

    1. @Margo Great question…I thought the same thing while I was reading this. I stumbled upon an article called “You are wrong about selfies, they are not proof of narcissism,” which makes a fascinating argument:

      As the author writes, “It sounds counter-intuitive, but by putting the self into a picture, it humanizes it and makes it more social, rather than selfish.” Definitely an interesting perspective!

      Check out the article here:

      @Kat & Syd – I think the robot-taking selfie is actually a great idea. People take selfies because they want to share themselves and their experiences with others…if a robot were taking pictures (with our permission) we wouldn’t have to stop awkwardly to take pictures of ourselves in all sorts of places….definitely lots of potential here!

      1. Really interesting perspective Kristie – thanks for sharing that article!

        Juxtaposing historical trends to the current day has been one really fascinating thing about this class. We are constantly taking things like selfies and social media and comparing them to the way things were done before computers or before the Internet became truly mainstream. It’s so important to consider behavior and acknowledge that it may not be the apocalypse at all (as some Baby Boomers certainly believe), but an alternative approach to something that has been practiced for years.

        @getzsyd, I agree with you that self portraits, while they certainly take more talent than selfies, are an alternative form of selfies that hardly communicate narcissism. They may just communicate the same thing as a mirror – we are all curious what our faces look like in a variety of lights and expressions. Seflies with smartphones just make them really easy to execute.

      2. @Kristie thanks for sharing that article! I checked it out and was surprised to see that a picture of one’s self is actually just a form of a message, while a selfie is the medium. However, as they mention in a society of “Kayne and Kims”, there are a lot of people with a narcissistic obsession with the self and the meaningless minutiae of day-to-day life. So I still think it can be a bit difficult to differentiate the two.

    2. Hey Margo – part of the reason I wrote this post was in researching the history of selfies, I decided that society is possibly just as narcissistic as it always was. Thinking about self portraits, and the idea that people have been painting themselves for centuries, it made me think that the idea to capture oneself has always been there, but the distribution has not. I think that the idea of selfies is old, but the ability to share them so easily is new, and because of that we are more aware of the number of people that are capturing their own image. Yes, sharing selfies is a trend and it has increased, but I don’t know if society is more narcissistic; maybe we are just more aware of society’s narcissism.

      1. Megan Johnson · ·

        I really enjoyed this post, Sydney! And I really like the points you’ve made here. The term “selfie” is a new(ish) one, but that doesn’t mean the concept is, it’s merely that these pictures have become more widely shared. I totally agree that it’s not an increasing narcissism, we just know more about that narcissistic behavior than we used to. I loved your exploration of the selfie in this post. I think a lot of people in our society judge people who take selfies and believe that selfie-takers are just full of themselves, and “oh no, what has our society come to?” But that way of thinking has always been here and it doesn’t mean it has to be a bad thing.

        Like you said, selfies can tell stories, especially with the photo diary, which is such a cool idea to see how you grow and change over time. It can be seen as art, if we do it right. It’s much in the same way that just because you take a picture of something (a non-selfie) doesn’t make you a skilled photographer. It can be art or it can be just a simple photo. Maybe in that sense, a selfie can be a selfie with the duck face expression or it can be art that tells a story. Something I’ve never really thought about. But people have said the same sort of narcissistic stuff about Twitter – how we just talk because we want to be heard – but we’ve seen how Twitter can be really awesome as well. There are so many ways to look at social media – good or bad, art or not, etc. Great post!

  3. Like others mentioned before me, you have proposed many interesting ideas Sydney. I agree with Kat that self-portraits have a more artistic dimension, but I also do believe some selfies can have an artistic dimension. Also like Kristie mentioned, I believe selfies are a way to personalize a message. There have been instances when I prefer to receive good news via a Snapchat rather than via text.
    Seeing a person’s emotions changes the way we interpret a piece of information.

    In response to Margo’s point, I do believe we may be a little more narcissistic than we previously have been. We are now sharing more self expression than ever before; however, I believe the ability to share feelings through pictures can be beneficial. Now we can tell a story to our friends since a picture is worth a thousand words. At the same time, people aren’t just taking selfies, but many now take “wefies”. I think the use and adoption of this term shows that society is better at demonstrating our excitement and joy in a group of our closest friends than previously.

    With more photos being shared of ourselves, I do wonder how we will share selfies on social media in the future. People used to post many selfies on Facebook, but I have noticed this is a fading trend with the advent of Snapchat. It seems as though people are making these photos more exclusive for their own friends and taking more expressive pictures as well. If people can send their friends a photo of themselves to only their closest friends, they will show more expression. This trend makes social media more personal, and I think it can positively influence the way we communicate in the future.

    Selfies are changing the way we use social media, and I wonder how other uninvented trends can change the future of social media.

    1. @Rob I agree with you that society has become a bit more narcissistic than ever before. However, @Kristie’s article demonstrated a counter point to this saying the a selfie is just another way for us to communicate a message. Which leads to your point that selfies can be a beneficial from of self-expression.

  4. Awesome blog post Syd…never really thought about how far into the past “selfies” really go when you think about it. I took interest in the definition you provided:

    “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”

    Is it just me, or is it strange that the definition is so vague? If I’m thinking about this right, then technically a “mirror pic” from the MySpace days are “selfies.” I’m probably reading too deeply into this, but it also implies that a picture can’t be a “selfie” unless it is uploaded to a social media website, which obviously just doesn’t make sense.

  5. Reblogged this on @PaulGordonBrown and commented:
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