The Real Oldest Photo of New York City is Not Nearly As Cool as the Fake One


News flash: You can’t believe everything you see on Twitter. We know, we were shocked too.

Such was the case with this striking sepia-toned image that started lighting up the mediasphere yesterday billed as “the Earliest Photograph Taken of New York City – Broadway, May 1850.” (And immediately started attracting comments in the vein of: “And they haven’t fixed the potholes since!”)

It’s a nice image, and it’s old, but even if it is dated properly (which it might not be) it wouldn’t be old enough. As Gizmodo’s Adam Clark Estes so aptly pointed out, the actual oldest photo of New York City is a daguerreotype taken in 1848 (pictured at the top), which captures a rustic estate near what would become an extension of Broadway.

At least that’s the oldest known photo of the Big Apple, known because it sold at a recent auction for $62,500. There may be older images, but it’s hard to precisely date daguerrotypes, which made their way to the U.S. shortly after Louis Daguerre announced his invention in 1839.

And frankly, it’s not nearly as impressive as the patience, preparation and muscle control that went into capturing the world’s first selfie, in 1839.

(via Gizmodo)

Image credit: Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

  • nightnyc

    History is always interesting. We have to know where we came from.

  • dagist

    Contrary to what this article says, the image showing the NYC street construction could indeed be the oldest surviving image of NYC because it was actually made in 1849 (not 1850), and is a daguerreotype, just like the circa 1848 image is.

    The Gizmodo author, Adam Clark Estes, really didn’t know what he was looking at and is not qualified to make the claim that the image isn’t the oldest known image of NYC.

    The street construction daguerreotype was formerly owned by Matthew Isenburg, the well-known photographic collector and expert on early American photo history. His entire collection was sold for $15 million in 2012 to The Archive of Modern Conflict in Toronto, where the daguerreotype now resides.

    The reason I know the street construction daguerreotype was made in 1849 is because the city of New York began installing a new type of patented stone block pavement on many of their streets in 1849 (it was called Russ pavement), and Broadway was the first street to get it.

    The daguerreotype shows this unique new Russ pavement, where the individual blocks were laid down on the street diagonally – to form the patented lozenge-shaped pattern clearly seen at the bottom of the image. The design allowed the wheels of carriages, or any other vehicles, to ride diagonally over the blocks. Russ pavement only lasted until 1868, when it was replaced by a newly patented type of Belgian block pavement.

    Unfortunately, the image in the story has been cropped. The original daguerreotype shows a lot more of the Russ pavement construction at the bottom. Also, someone has artificially toned the digital image to look sepia in color; the original daguerreotype doesn’t have those warm tones.

    The other circa 1848 daguerreotype in the story can not be definitively dated. The 1848 date is simply an educated guess by the auction company that sold it. The date could be several years off and until that image’s date can be more precisely determined, neither image can really claim to be the oldest.


    Rob McElroy
    Contemporary daguerreotypist and photo historian
    Buffalo, NY

  • dagist

    After doing a little more digging, I discovered the source of how the circa 1848 daguerreotype was dated. There was a slip of paper found with the daguerreotype which described the image and said, “This view, was taken at too great a distance, & from ground 60 or 70 feet lower than the building; rendering the lower Story of the House, & the front Portico entirely invisible. (the handsomest part of the House.) The main road, passes between the two Post & rail fences. (called, a continuation of Broadway 60 feet wide.) It requires a maganifying glass, to clearly distinguish the Evergreens, within the circular enclosure, taken the last of October, when nearly half of the leaves were off the trees. May 1849. L. B.”

    So, if the “Broadway” mentioned in the note is truly NYC’s Broadway (which the owner of the image and the auction company believed it was), then the note dates the image to late October 1848. And as long as the image does depict NYC’s Broadway (surmised only from the note), then the image can claim to be older than the other 1849 daguerreotype, but not by much.

    Both are fascinating images nonetheless.

    Rob McElroy
    Buffalo, NY

  • bill

    Could the cases be a clue to their age?