Before the Smartphone: How Our Ancestors Took Selfies

By Rachel Christian

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Although the word “selfie” didn’t find its way into the dictionary until 2013, humans have been documenting their own reflections for millennia! With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look back through the years, from self-portraits to Polaroids, to see how our ancestors captured themselves living in the moment!

1. Venus Figurines

Venus figurine, the Venus of Willendorf

Human created these carved figurines as far back as 30,000 BCE! Most are of women and are distinguished by exaggerated feminine features. No one knows exactly why these figures were created, but one theory is that they might have been self-portraits. Looking at one of these figures from above, the view resembles what a woman’s would see when she looked down at her own body. This would also explain why Venus figurines typically didn’t include much detail on the heads.

2. Self-Portraits

Da Vinci, portrait of a man in red chalk

As artists painted their way through the many artistic movements of history, the self-portrait became a genre all its own. Da Vinci’s portrait of a man in red chalk is widely accepted as a self-portrait of the artist. Raphael and Michelangelo are known to have sneaked their own faces into their frescos of The School of Athens and the Sistine Chapel. Many artist’s self-portraits became some of their most famous works, including Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, and Frida Kahlo’s many renditions of herself.

3. Polaroids

Andy Warhol

We would be remiss to write a short history of the selfie and not mention the Polaroid. The first Polaroid camera hit stores in 1948, but it wasn’t until the mid 60s that these cameras began to resemble the instant-developing machines we know today. Many artists chose to use Polaroids to photograph themselves, the most famous of which was Andy Warhol with his many quirky self-portraits.

The Very First Selfie?

Robert Cornelius

In 1839, amateur chemist and photographer Robert Cornelius took a photo of himself which would become the world’s first proper “selfie” taken with a camera. He even wrote a caption on the back: “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.” All that’s missing is the hashtags!

For better or worse, selfies have ingrained themselves in our modern world. We can’t help but imagine future genealogists using these snapshots as part of their research and rejoicing when they find a long-lost selfie of their ancestor!

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