More than 170 years ago, Philadelphian Joseph Saxton (Born on this day in 1799) did something extraordinary. With a cigar box, a burning glass lens, and a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate, Saxton peered out of an upper window at the U.S. Mint and captured an image of two partially blurred buildings. The result: The oldest extant photograph in the United States.
Photography — or daguerreotypy as it was then known — is a French invention, developed by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in the 1830s. The process was officially recognized in early 1839, with features appearing in Philadelphia’s U.S. Gazette and North American newspapers later that year. Many readers doubted such a process was possible. Working only from the press accounts, Saxton began to tinker with Daguerre’s method of capturing images and quickly fashioned his homemade device. He exposed the photograph on Oct. 16, 1839.
A beautiful image it is not. Barely two inches square, the picture depicts Central High School, located then at the corner of Juniper and Market Streets, and the Philadelphia Armory.
Philadelphia Central High School for Boys and Pennsylvania State Arsenal photograph ca. 1839. From the HSP treasures collection.
“Many folks wonder why the first photograph isn’t of a more personal subject, like a child or a kitten, but was instead of Central High School,” remarked Lee Arnold, senior director of the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). “That’s easy: Buildings don’t move.”
To capture the image, Saxton had to expose the plate for 10 minutes, which required the stillness only inanimate objects can provide.
So why did Saxton choose a window at the Mint as his vantage? He was on the clock. The Huntingdon County native worked there as a curator, designing balances to verify standard weights. Both Central High and the Armory were clearly visible from the Mint, located then at Chestnut and Juniper Streets.
“Not only was it the first photograph taken in the United States, it could be the first documented example of a government employee doing personal work on company time,” Arnold averred.
“Central High School, Philadelphia,” facsimile of daguerreotype attributed to Joseph Saxton ca. 1839. From the HSP treasures collection.
Undisputedly one of the fathers of American photography, Saxton appears blurry at best in most histories dedicated to the subject. His interests were wide ranging, with his attention soon turning from “light writing.” The hydrometer, metallic cartridges for ammunition, improvements to the fountain pen, and other inventions are also attributed to him.
Saxton and his daguerreotype, however, are far from the city’s only connection to early photography in North America. Philadelphian Robert Cornelius — a lamp-maker whose photography studio at Eighth and Market Streets was one of the first in the world — likely prepared the silver-coated plate Saxton used.
Cornelius also pioneered a use of photography that will be familiar to modern observers: He snapped the first self-portrait, or selfie, the same year as Saxton’s photograph. Truly #NoFilter.
HSP holds in its permanent collection Saxton’s daguerreotype and several images taken by Cornelius. These and dozens of other images from photography’s early years are found in HSP’s Digital Library, available at digitallibrary.hsp.org.