You asked, we answer: What is the oldest known color photo?

Twitter-photo-qWhen it comes to objects—and sometimes humans—people are always curious to know what’s the first, biggest, oldest, or best.  The problem with superlatives is that they can be difficult to establish definitively.  The answer to a question we received via Twitter last week—possibly in response to our recent blog post "The 1906 San Francisco quake, in color"—illustrates the problem: "What is the oldest known color photo?"

Here’s what curator Michelle Delaney had to say: "Much research continues on early experiments in color photography. The museum holds a rare and unique set of Hillotypes from the 1850s by early American photographer, Reverend Levi L. Hill. He achieved some successes with color images on daguerreotype plates. But other heliochrome experiments with color photography were also being done in France at the same time by Niepce de St. Victor."

For more on the origins of color photography, check out these other Smithsonian resources:

  • Are they really color photographs or were they hand-colored with pigments? See Michelle’s "Unlocking a photography mystery" blog post about a research project on the Hillotypes collection.
  • Michelle investigates some controversial examples of early color photography in her contribution to the Smithsonian’s Click! Web site: "Photography changes the historical research curators do."
  • On “The Bigger Picture” blog, the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s Merry Foresta discusses how color has been one of the biggest problems in photography and introduces us to the luminous color of the autochrome. See "Photography’s Colorful Past."

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of "You asked, we answer" blog posts. If you have a burning question you'd like to see answered, please submit it using the comment form below or send an email with the subject "Questions answered." 

Dana Allen-Greil is new media project manager at the National Museum of American History.