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The First Known Photograph of the White House

A Welsh immigrant named John Plumbe, Jr., who was one of the country’s first prominent professional photographers, took the daguerreotype in January 1846.

The earliest known photograph of the White House, by John Plumbe, Jr. (1846) (via White House Historical Association)

In a new series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.

Given that the President-elect’s favorite color, and presumably substance, is gold, the venerable White House could soon undergo its gaudiest redecoration to date. Yet the home of the American president has been a consistent symbol since it was built, maintaining its classically inspired architecture through the War of 1812 fire, massive renovations under Harry S. Truman, and other alterations.

Self-portrait by John Plumbe, Jr. (1847) (via Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The earliest known photograph of the White House was taken in 1846 and is attributed to a Welsh immigrant named John Plumbe, Jr., who was one of the country’s first prominent professional photographers. You can see his daguerreotype above, with its leafless trees and patch of snow capturing a 19th-century January day. According to the White House Historical Association, the “cast of the shadows indicates that the photograph was taken in early morning light.” (Note: This may not entirely be accurate if, as a commenter pointed out, the shadows from the sun on the left suggest late afternoon.)

In 1846, President James K. Polk was in office, and his White House had notable differences from the one of 2016. Ghosts of DC points out that the older building did not have the current top floor, as well as the balcony that Harry S. Truman added to the second level.

The White House photograph isn’t Plumbe’s only image of the nation’s capital in 1846. That year he systematically journeyed around the city, capturing its official buildings with the new photographic technique. The Library of Congress — which has a collection of Plumbe’s daguerreotypes, including of the United States Capitol, the United States Patent Office, and the General Post Office — notes that the photographer opened his Washington, DC, studio the year before. On January 29, 1846, around the time of the White House picture, the United States Journal reported, “We are glad to learn that this artist is now engaged in taking views of all the public buildings which are executed in a style of elegance, that far surpasses any we have seen.”

The United States Capitol, photographed by John Plumbe, Jr., in 1846 (note the early Charles Bulfinch dome) (via Library of Congress)
The General Post Office, photographed by John Plumbe, Jr., in 1846 (via Library of Congress)
The United States Patent Office, photographed by John Plumbe, Jr., in 1846 (via Library of Congress)

Unfortunately, although Plumbe expanded his photography galleries to 13 cities and was a major advocate for the transcontinental railroad, by 1857 he was financially ruined. On May 29 of that year, he slit his own throat with a straight razor.

By the 20th century, Plumbe’s legacy was mostly lost, and it was only by chance, in 1972, that collector Michael Kessler found a series of his daguerreotypes at a San Francisco flea market. Plumbe’s camera was also acquired by the George Eastman Museum. In 1977, Plumbe’s unmarked grave at Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque, Iowa, was finally given a monument by the Dubuque County Historical Society.

The White House in 2016 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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