The earliest surviving photo of the White House, 1846, was discovered at a flea market in 1972

The White House was 54 years old when it was first photographed in 1846 by a civil engineer, entrepreneurial photographer and immigrant named John Plumbe, Jr.

John Plumbe, Jr. Self-Portrait, 1847 (One year after his White House photo)
Public Domain via Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

John Plumbe is a rather interesting individual.

One of the earliest and most passionate advocates for the construction of a transcontinental railroad was the self-described “Professor of Photography,” John Plumbe, Jr. (1809-57). He argued forcefully in the national press, lectures, and pamphlets on the importance of a railroad to the Pacific.

Library of Congress, Micah Messenheimer, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division

Plumbe saw railroads as the driving force of our national destiny. By 1838, when American steam railroading was barely a decade old, Plumbe was urging Congress to underwrite construction of a rail link to the Pacific. This led the legislators to comment that next he’d be asking for “a railroad to the moon.” Although his plea was ridiculed, the idea took root, leading some historians to regard Plumbe as the father of the transcontinental railroad, as his tombstone now claims.

Washington Post, “Plumbe’s Photographic Depths” by Hank Burchard December 19, 1997

Plumbe was first introduced to daguerreotypy in the spring of 1840, perhaps by Daguerre’s American agent, and initially took up the practice professionally to fund his railroad advocacy. As he had for railroading, he became an early booster for the new medium of photography.

Plumbe was well-regarded for the quality of his work and for his experimentation, which included patents for a method to selectively color daguerreotypes. Additionally, he became the first American photographer to franchise studios. At his peak, he established over twenty galleries in the U.S. and overseas that specialized in photographing sitters the Washington Daily Times described in 1846 as, “almost every person of distinction or notoriety that has been before the public in many years.”

Library of Congress, Micah Messenheimer, Assistant Curator of Photography, Prints and Photographs Division

Plumbe photographed many buildings in Washington D.C., including this famous photograph of the White House.

The young reporter Walt Whitman (yes, THE Walt Whitman poet) wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle and Kings County Democrat (July 2, 1846) celebrating Plumbe’s creation of “a new world” in his Broadway gallery. “We could spend days in that collection, and find enough enjoyment in the thousand human histories involved in those daguerreotypes,” Whitman wrote.

“Plumbe’s beautiful and multifarious pictures all strike you with their naturalness, and the life-look of the eye, that soul of the face!” He noted that the richly appointed walls were covered with the likenesses of distinguished statesmen, authors, musicians, actors and comedians, jurists, artists, and belles. (via and Washington Post)

But then just two years later, things took a turn for the worse.

But competition drove down prices to the point that a portrait that went for $6 in 1840 was down to as little as a quarter by 1848, and Plumbe began to sell out to his franchisees. The following spring he joined the Forty-Niners headed west for the California gold fields, but Plumbe wasn’t after gold. He still was obsessed with the transcontinental railroad, which the swelling tide of westward expansion made not only practical but necessary, and he flogged the idea up and down the West Coast for the next five years.

But Plumbe was ahead of the historical curve, and by 1854 had fallen back to Dubuque, Iowa, where he and his brother operated a steam-powered mill. Plumbe’s health was failing, and recurrent attacks of malaria laid him low. The financial panic of 1857 wiped out his remaining investments and drained the last of his once-boundless optimism and energy. On the morning of May 29, 1857, he cut his throat with a straight razor. [taking his life]

Washington Post, “Plumbe’s Photographic Depths” by Hank Burchard December 19, 1997

How tragic! One of the earliest famous photographers meets such a sad end. But then his story doesn’t end there. Apparently his photographs of the DC area must have gone missing all those years until 1972!

In 1972 when interest in collecting photographs was just becoming popular, collector Michael Kessler found seven daguerreotypes of architectural subjects at the Alameda flea market in San Francisco. After the tarnished plates were cleaned, Kessler sent copy photographs of six of the images to the Library of Congress for assistance in identifying the buildings.

The newly discovered daguerreotypes were identified as government buildings located in Washington, D.C., and a monument in Baltimore. Library staff were excited to discover that these images were the earliest photographic views of buildings in the nation’s capital. Among the images were daguerreotypes of the United States Capitol, the White House, two views of the General Post Office, the Patent Office, and a monument commemorating the Battle of North Point, located in Baltimore.

The Library purchased six of the daguerreotypes in 1972. 

Library of Congress

The man who helped start both the transcontinental railroad AND one of the first famous photographers—his photos were missing for two hundred years, then found in a flea market! One of those photos was the very first photo of the White House. Just mind blowing.

The six daguerreotypes that the Library of Congress bought

United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., east front elevation. Photograph by John Plumbe, 1846
United States Capitol, 1846
Notice the original wooden outer dome designed by Charles Bulfinch
United States Patent Office, Washington, D.C., showing F Street facade, possibly taken from the upper floor of the General Post Office
United States Patent Office, 1846
White House, 1846
General Post Office from the corner of 8th Street and E Street, NW, Washington, D.C., the shop of Elija Dyer, merchant tailor, on the left
Post Office, 1846
General Post Office from the corner of 7th Street and E Street, NW, Washington, D.C.
Post Office, 1846
Monument commemorating the Battle of North Point, Calvert Street and Fayette Street, Baltimore, Maryland
Monument commemorating the Battle of North Point, Baltimore, Maryland

This story has so many angles and unique trivia

  1. First White House photograph.
  2. The man captured this photo helped popularize photography as a new medium.
  3. He also helped start the transcontinental railroad.
  4. He is the first person to franchise photography galleries.
  5. Walt Whitman (as a young newspaper reporter) praised his photo gallery.
  6. Prices for photo portraits dropped from $6 to $0.25 in eight years.
  7. The financial panic of 1857 wiped out the rest of his finances, he ultimately took his own life.
  8. His rare historic photographs found 125 years later in a flea market.

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