The earliest known photo of Abraham Lincoln is well known and commonly seen today, but did you know it was unknown to the public until 1896?
The daguerreotype, attributed to photographer Nicholas H. Shepherd, was taken in 1848 when Lincoln was a 37-year-old frontier lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and a Congressman-elect.
This picture — along with an accompanying one of Mary Lincoln from the same year — hung in the Lincolns’ home for decades (from the time oldest son Robert said he could first remember as a child growing up). Whether it was hung in the White House is unknown, but after the assassination Mary Lincoln kept it with her belongings as she traveled the United States and the world. After her death, the photos became the property of Robert Lincoln, the oldest and only surviving Lincoln son.
Interestingly, the existence of this photo was not public knowledge until December 1895, when it was published in McClure’s magazine with the permission of Robert Lincoln. McClure’s obtained the image after Robert had revealed its existence to writer Ida Tarbell when she interviewed him in Chicago early in 1895. Tarbell related in her book, All in the Day’s Work, her meeting with Robert and his offer of the unpublished daguerreotype to her for her article. “I held my breath. If it was true!” she wrote. “I held my breath still longer when the picture was finally in my hands for I realized that this was a Lincoln which shattered the widely accepted tradition of his early shabbiness, rudeness, ungainliness. It was another Lincoln, and one that took me by storm.”
The photo also took the country and the world by storm when it was published. The magazine even did a follow-up article solely on the public reaction to the photo, including quotes from national figures opining on the image.
Two people who may not have been impressed, but even upset, about the publication of the Lincoln daguerreotype were John Hay and John Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln’s White House secretaries and historians in the midst of completing a multi-volume life of Lincoln. The two were also personal friends with Robert Lincoln, and Robert gave them exclusive access to all of his father’s papers and materials for their book.
Robert wrote to Hay in November 1895 explaining how and why he gave the photo of his father to Tarbell to print, and not to Hay and Nicolay:
“It was among a lot of inconsequential things kept packed up by my mother which I examined carefully for the first time, after I returned from England in 1893. This examination was a business that I might have done at any time after her death in 1882 but there was no reason for thinking it of consequence, and I dreaded it.”
Robert added that he decided to give the photo to Tarbell to use “to put her under a little obligation to me,” since he had little trust for reporters or historians, which he said, appears to have worked.
Mary Lincoln Isham, Robert Lincoln’s oldest daughter, presented the original daguerreotypes of Lincoln and Mary to the Library of Congress in October 1937.