Is This the Oldest Photo of a US President?

It is a truism that the rich and famous are early adopters of the latest technology. Given that photography was unleashed on the world in 1839, what is the earliest surviving photo of a US President?

Roman Abramovich has (at least) one superyacht, the Queen has Buckingham Palace (among several palaces), Jeff Bezos has been into space (and back), and Elon Musk has his finger in more pies than I'd care to eat. In general, the rich and wealthy are early adopters when it comes to owning the latest and greatest, along with being first to the post with trying out new experiences firsthand. It's surprising to think that the 1800s perhaps saw — or at least the population felt — even more technological innovation than we have experienced in our lifetimes. True, the pace of change is now exhaustingly fast and getting faster, but for those living over a century ago, the experience of going from virtually standing still to global cities, mass production, and the Industrial Revolution must have been remarkable. This was all aided by the massive strides that were being taken in science.

The appearance of photography was quite simply magical; up to that point, pencil or paint were required to record a scene and this took time. The camera obscura was a fantastic phenomenon for viewing a landscape and making reproductions, but only advanced the viewing of a scene, not the recording of it. The unveiling of photography — in the form of the Daguerrotype — by the French government in 1839 was an exciting moment in science and society more widely. Not only that but it was made available patent-free to the world. This enabled the technology to spread at breathtaking speed around the globe, and it's fascinating to see that by 1840, the portraitist John Plumbe was already offering his services in Washington D.C. Remember the Daguerrotype didn't appear until August 1839! More fascinating was the speed of innovation in both the technical and business aspects of photography. Plumbe himself established a string of 27 studios, seeking profit from taking portraits of the rich and wealthy, in addition to filing patents for several improvements to the Daguerrotype.

Who was president in 1839 and did they have their portrait taken by Plumbe? Martin van Buren served as the eighth president from 1837-1841 and was one of the founders of the Democratic Party. There is indeed a photo of him in the Library of Congress; however, it doesn't appear to date from his time in office, as it is of an older van Buren (below). He was followed by William Henry Harrison, who was the shortest-serving president, dying in office after just 31 days (possibly from typhoid). He was followed by John Tyler (1841-45), who succeeded him as Vice President (without an election). That brings us to James Polk, who served through to 1849. Noted for his political settlement with the UK, expansion of the southwest at the expense of Mexico, and re-establishment of an independent treasury, he is also the first president who has a photo in the Library of Congress. The image, shown at the top of this article, is from a negative that dates from 1855-1865, but the original was actually printed at a later date. However, as was common with reproduction, it is actually a photo of the original Daguerreotype that was taken between 1845 and 1849 while he was in office. Who the photographer was is lost to the mystery of time; however, it would have been quite a coup (and great for business!) to have taken the photo. It could possibly have been Plumbe, although by the late 1840s, there would have been a rapid expansion in the number of photographers working in Washington D.C. It's remarkable to think that it was perhaps this one photo that eventually led to the position of Chief Official White House Photographer and some 1,000 photos a day that are added to the collection!Images in the Public Domain and courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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5 Comments

Mike Smith's picture

Thanks for the clarification. The LoC didn't credit the photographer, just that it was from the brady-handy collection. Much appreciated

Felix C's picture

Another poorly written Fstoppers article. Jeff Bezos has not been to space yet. John Tyler was elected vice-president in 1840, Gerald Ford was the only president that was never elected. Please get your facts straight, it really is not that difficult.

Mini Buns's picture

… not for nothing; however, Lyndon B. Johnson was never elected President either. He became became the 36th President of the United States by default in 1963 upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Chad L's picture

"the 1800s perhaps saw more technological innovation than we have experienced in our lifetimes"

I'm not trying to be pedantic, but virtually every expert & historian agrees that the most technological innovations happened in the 1900s. We went from horse-drawn carriages to a man walking on the moon, to the internet. Nuclear power, airplanes, computers and robotics... What exactly happened in the 1800s that even compares? It's not even an argument in my opinion, we're talking orders of magnitude more innovations happened in the 1900s than in the 1800s.