The Fascinating Story Behind The Oldest Surviving Photograph of a US President


In June of last year, we gave you a quick “photo trivia o’ the day” lesson on the history of presidential photography. We told you that John Quincy Adams sat for what is currently the oldest surviving photo of a US President, that James Polk sat for the oldest of a US President in office, and that President Obama was actually the first to have his official photo taken digitally. That first of those three facts, however, comes with an interesting story.


The photo of John Quincy Adams we shared that day (above) is one of two taken around the same time in 1843, both of which vie for the title of “oldest” surviving photo of a US President. Unfortunately, other than the fact that it was taken by Philip Haas at Adams’ home in Quincy, MA, we know very little about that photograph.

The other of the two (top) we know quite a bit more about. It was taken on a trip to New York, during which the president visited Niagara Falls, shook too many hands, visited an all-girls school, and spent some time with a child dwarf dressed as Napoleon. We know these bizarre details thanks to the meticulous diary Adams kept.

Here’s an excerpt from that diary:

The shaking of some hundred hands then followed and on my way returning to Mr. Johnson’s, I stopped and four daguerreotype likenesses of my head were taken, two of them jointly with the head of Mr. Bacon — all hideous.

That sentence is all the attention that was paid to the historic photograph, in a three paragraph entry that devoted almost an entire third to a pebble that lodged itself in the former president’s eye. But then that’s not surprising, as far as he was concerned his photos were “hideous” and “too true to the original.”

The last bit of interesting history behind the photo is how it came to be [arguably] the oldest surviving photo of a US President. The first photo ever taken of a sitting US President was taken long before the one of Polk mentioned above. It was actually of William Henry Harrison, and it was taken in 1841. That one, however, was lost somewhere in the junk pile of history.


This one barely escaped, surfacing in 1970 at an antique shop where it was bought for a more than reasonable $0.50. That copy is now kept in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian where all of us can visit and admire just how “hideous” the portrait really is.

(via The Atlantic)

  • fast eddie

    Better check your math, that photo of John Quincy Adams couldn’t have been taken in 1943, he died in 1848.

  • Alberto Monteraz

    IMHO it is a mistake not having a film official photograph of President Obama. It is hard to believe that all of President’s photos could be “lost” in a digital media disaster, however why dont have that “physical” copy, much more easily storable in the Congress Library or wherever. Just put it in a case and forget it for the next 150 years. I do not understand why they dont used both media.

  • ed.cetera

    you know you can print a digital photo right? and how is a physical print more storable than a digital one? i get what you’re trying to say with wanting to preserve the film medium etc but your logic is flawed

  • Alberto Monteraz

    I meant keeping a negative like the raw file, not a printed copy, which is less durable than a film negative. But thanks, I had not noticed it was possible to print a digital photo.

  • John Adkins

    RAW files on modern digital cameras can contain as much detail and information as a film negatives.

  • Alberto Monteraz

    Sure, but you cannot keep it in a case for 150 years. Did you guys read what I said?

  • John Adkins

    I read what you said clearly. I think maybe you’re not familiar with modern archival methods and RAW data retention. To say that you can’t keep a digital file as long as you can a negative is laughable. Negatives can be easily damaged just like anything else. It all boils down to how you go about protecting your files, film or otherwise.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    I have family photos from the early 1950s in color Kodachrome format, and they look great to this day. Where will all of our cellphone pics be in 60 years? Where will all our books printed on fast decaying acid-based paper be in 60 years, for that matter?