News & Politics

Here’s a Really Old Photograph of the Smithsonian Castle

Here’s a Really Old Photograph of the Smithsonian Castle
A close-up of the glass negative showing the Smithsonian Castle's construction. Image courtesy the Smithsonian Institution.

To commemorate the 169th anniversary of its founding today, the Smithsonian Institution is showing off a photograph of the construction of the Smithsonian Castle—dated 1850. The image, taken when only two of the castle’s nine towers were finished, is believed to be the earliest photograph of the Smithsonian, the institution says in a press release.

The modern-day Smithsonian discovered the image in the possession of Arlington resident Tom Rall, who collects slides from the mid-19th century. The image of the Smithsonian was taken by Philadelphia photographers William and Frederick Langenheim using a process they developed called hyalotype, which produced glass negatives instead of the paper negatives that most photography until that point used. Glass negatives could be used to produce printed photos or a glass-lantern slide, which is what the Smithsonian collected from Rall.

One of the most startling details about this image is its clarity, considering its era. But the glass-negative photography developed by the Langenheims produced much sharper pictures than paper negatives. It also informs the earliest history of photography, which had only become a mainstream form of documentation in 1839.

It also shows off much more of the history of the James Renwick-designed structure, which was built between 1847 and 1855. “The photograph is important because it verifies much of the written history we have about the odd way in which the Castle was built—the wings first and the main central section last. It greatly adds to the historical record we have for this national historic landmark,” says Richard Stamm, the curator of the Smithsonian Castle Collection.”

The original glass-lantern slide by William and Frederick Langenheim.

The negative embedded in the glass-lantern slide could be used to print a new copy of the photo, says Smithsonian spokeswoman Becky Haberacker, but to produce the full-sized image of the Castle under construction, Stamm took a high-resolution digital photograph of the slide. The slide will go on display at the Castle at 4 PM today.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.