Why Lincoln’s Mole Was on the Wrong Side in the Original Five Dollar Bill Photo

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is something familiar about the photo to the left.  Obviously the photo is of Abraham Lincoln, but if you look closely, you will swear you have seen it somewhere before. In fact, you are likely to have a limited edition print of this photo somewhere in your house right now.  Maybe even in your pocket.

This photo is the inspiration for the front of the new (post 2007) five dollar bill. If you examine the five dollar bill (see below), you will see a similar image of Abraham Lincoln gazing thoughtfully to the left..err, I mean right.  Wait a minute.  If we compare the original photo to an actual five dollar bill, we see that they are mirror images of each other.  Lincoln’s trademark mole (originally photographed on the left side of his face) appears now on the right.

What prankster had the nerve to deface the original photo and callously flip its direction?  Was it an artistic choice to present a more traditional pose?  Did a beauty consultant insist that the mole looked better on the right than the left? Did the bill designer just need more space on the right side of the bill for the serial number?

Actually, the five dollar bill is correct. Lincoln’s mole appears on the five dollar bill as it did in real life – on the right.  It is the original photo that was backwards. How could such a mistake have been made and why has it survived for 150 years?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The original photo was a daguerreotype, an imaging technique invented when photography was in its infancy in the mid-nineteenth century.  Unlike most other forms of photography which followed, daguerreotypes were positive final images made directly onto light sensitive plates. A downfall of this technique was that images were chemically etched for posterity  – IN REVERSE.

In photography as we know it, images are first formed on temporary media (film negatives or digital sensors). While in this state, images are quite often flipped or reversed depending on the optics of the lenses.  The images are then transferred onto other media (photographic slides, paper, or a computer screen) for viewing. During this transfer process, the images are re-reversed back into their normal state.

With daguerrotypes, there was no intermediate image state.  Imaging were formed directly onto a plate which would serve both as the film and the final “print.” During the process, light rays were allowed to strike a mirror-like plate which was coated with light sensitive silver halide particles.  When exposed to developer and fixer solutions, silver particles remained on the plate in areas of light exposure and were washed away in unexposed areas.  Because of the simplicity of this method, there was no opportunity to correct the mirror affect which inevitably occurred.  Thus, Lincoln’s mole was on the wrong side.  The image probably looked strange to everyone except Lincoln. To Lincoln, the face in the portrait looked the same as the one he saw in the mirror every morning.

If Lincoln’s facial expression looks solemn, it is with good reason.  Smiling for photographs had not yet come into vogue. Even if one wanted to smile, daguerreotype exposures were very long (minutes) and holding a smile for that long would result in muscle cramps and blurry lips.   Besides, the Civil War had been waging for three years when this image was taken and Lincoln was probably just not in the mood.

Such was the state of photography in 1864.  But newer and fancier photographic methods were already sweeping the Western world.  It was a golden era for photographic inventors and they would quickly obsolete the simple daguerreotype. But for a brief span of time, we can still see history exactly as it was – in reverse.

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  1. I do not understand how the photo is reversed only horizontaly, the dagerreotype plate is a direct positive process, the image is reversed like in any camera. But reverse on two axes, vartical and horizontal. You said that the daguerreotype only inverse the image in one axe?

    Your idea need a better explanation.

    • Preston Scott says:

      Hi Mario,
      It is similar to the effect you get when you look at something in the mirror – in fact, the daguerreotype plate is very similar to a piece of mirror. Whatever you see in a mirror will be reversed in the horizontal axis but not the vertical.

      Hope this helps.

  2. So what about Mt Rushmore? Is it backward ad well?

  3. Nope. Mt Rushmore correctly depicts the same photo.