The first known photograph of the White House

White House first photo
A daguerreotype of the White House, taken during the winter of 1846.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

This image is the earliest known photographic depiction of the White House, taken sometime in January of 1846. The photographer responsible was John Plumbe Jr, a Welsh-born entrepreneurial photographer who is also known as the first person in the United States to open a franchise of photography galleries and studios across the country. He had opened the very first photography studio of its kind in Washington and was responsible for some of the first pictures of various locations in the city – including this one of the President’s home. The photograph itself is a daguerreotype – one of the earliest widely adopted forms of photography, wherein images were exposed onto silvered copper plates.

The president in the house at this time was James K. Polk, who served as the United States’ eleventh elected leader. He’s mostly known today for leading the country through the Mexican-American War, and annexing the land which has now become the various western States of the union – including Texas, Oregon, and California. The annexation of Texas itself, which eventually sparked that war, had officially occurred on the 28th of December, 1845 – likely only a few weeks before this photograph was taken, if not sooner.

While the building itself is much the same today, the grounds before it is not. Look at any modern photograph of the backside of the White House – you can’t even see the side wings, as they are obscured by huge trees. The grounds of the White House seem in this photograph to be in their infancy, bearing only small saplings and trees. Another feature present on the White House today is the tall post on its roof which dons an American flag – a post that, clearly, had not yet been added in 1846.

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