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)