The Best Historical Photos You’ve Never Seen
In galleries of historical photos, you are likely to see the same few iconic pictures repeated again and again. A soldier kissing his sweetheart in New York amidst a parade celebrating the end of World War II. Elvis shaking hands with President Nixon. Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. However, history is too rich, diverse and bizarre to limit your appreciation of it to these comfortable cliches. The photos in this article, not commonly circulated, will give you flavors of a past that may taste new.
If you take a ride on the NYC subway today, you may stand to be slightly uncomfortable. Pandhandlers might do a song and dance routine in your face. Someone may have even peed on a seat or two. But these headaches are nothing compared to the state of the city’s railway system in the seventies and early eighties, when the subway was extraordinarily dangerous.
This photograph of a group of young women riding a graffiti-blanketed subway was taken by Willy Spiller, whose favorite subject was the NYC subway system. He was present for a major crime wave. During the late seventies and early eighties, the subways were such hotspots for violent crime that there were over two thousand cops assigned to walk underground beats at every hour of the day.
Mummy Vendor, 1875
A bored-looking man waits for someone to buy one of his mummies on an Egyptian street. Remarkably, this was not a rare scene.
While mummies are today the subject of intense interest from historians and scientists, during this time they were considered mere curiosities. A popular tradition among European elites of the era was to hold something called a “mummy unwrapping party,” in which a real mummy, cheaply acquired, was laid bare for the amusement of party attendees.
Mummies were also commonly rendered into powders that allegedly held great curative powers. The mummy powder market was so robust, in fact, that fraudulent mummy powders were sold in their stead. The trick was a macabre one. Instead of using mummy flesh, the powder was made from the bodies of indigent people. Powdered mummy was also commonly used as fertilizer in Europe.
These are just a handful of their common uses, all of which seem monumentally wasteful now. Intense demand for the desiccated corpses far outstripped the supply. It got to the point where dead bodies were turned into counterfeit mummies by burying them in sand and letting them dry in the sun, then sold to Europeans. There is no telling how much history was lost in this market frenzy.
Hitler Celebrates Christmas, 1941
Hitler at a Munich Christmas party with high-ranking Nazis on December 18, 1941. The party was held at the Lowenbraukeller restaurant.
This photo, and others that are now similarly colorized, was taken by one of Hitler’s personal photographers, named Hugo Jaeger. This is from a collection of photos that Jaeger hid in a buried glass jar at the end of the war, exhumed in 1955 and stored in a bank vault.
Technically, they were not celebrating Christmas. They were celebrating Julfest, the Nazi recasting of the holiday. Nazi mythologists developed many outlandish theories about Christmas. Among their claims was that Santa Claus was a Christian revamping of Odin, and that the holiday actually celebrated the “rebirth of the sun” in the winter solstice. The swastika was promoted as an ancient sun symbol.
The Nazis also imported their own imagery into the traditional Christmas iconography. Posters were published, showing a very Santa-like, gray-bearded Odin carrying a sack full of presents on the back of a white horse. The Nazis also rendered their own version of the Nativity Scene, with familiar figures replaced by toy animals. Mary and Jesus were, of course, blonde.
The Hindenburg Over New York, 1936
The Hindenburg, the enormous airship most famous for eventually exploding, is seen here passing the Empire State Building in 1937. When the photograph was taken, the Hindenburg was on its way to its disastrous landing in New Jersey.
The Hindenburg was a commercial passenger rigid airship. It was the largest airship, by envelope volume, in the world. It was in operation for fourteen months, first taking flight in March of 1936.
Extensive research after the disaster suggests that the explosion was caused by a spark resulting from a disparity in electric potential between the airship and the atmosphere. The spark caught a hydrogen leak and set the airship on fire.
Thirty-six people were killed in the disaster. It was the last of the major airship disasters in history. In comparison, the Hindenburg disaster was actually significantly less fatal than multiple other, less famous incidents that preceded it. However, the Hindenburg loomed large in the world’s consciousness, and travel by airship became markedly less popular.
The explosion was a media spectacle. The public ate up newsreel footage and audio recordings from the disaster’s aftermath. It was the kiss of death for the institution of airship travel, which has never recovered.
Laverie Valee, 1897
This is Laverie Valee, better known by her stage name Charmion. Charmion was a trapeze artist who performed in American vaudeville acts. She was also a strongwoman, who incorporated feats of strength into her act.
She was most famous for a trapeze act in which she removed layers of her Victorian clothing while in midair. It was extremely risque for the time, and audiences reacted with obligatory outcries of disgust. Thomas Edison filmed the act in 1901.
Strongwomen became a popular staple in circuses. Nowadays, female muscle is pedestrian. At the time, it was unprecedented for women to look like Charmion. She was not the only famous strongwoman. One of the best known was Katie Brumbach, or “The Great Sandwina,” who was famous for being able to lift her husband over her head with one arm.
During the 19th century and even the early part of the 20th, exercise was discouraged for women, considered both unhealthy and unbecoming. Exercise was the exclusive domain of males, and if a female were to follow a similar health regimen, it would render her manly.
It wasn’t until significantly later, well past the explosion of male bodybuilding into the mainstream, that women commonly endeavored to bulk up.
The Real Uncle Sam, 1970
Walter Botts, upon whom the Uncle Sam propaganda figure was based, poses at the grand opening of Uncle Sam’s Newsroom Restaurant and Lodge in 1970.
Uncle Sam allegedly got his name from a meat packer named Samuel Wilson, who gave American soldiers rations in the War of 1812. He stamped the boxes of meat with the designation “E.A – US.” “US” was not the typical abbreviation of United States at the time (it was U. States), leading some soldiers to start calling Wilson “Uncle Sam.” Uncle Sam remained a faceless folk character until James Montgomery Flagg painted him for the cover of a magazine called Leslie’s Weekly.
Flagg originally used his own face as a model for Sam’s. When he was tapped to update the Uncle Sam character for an army recruitment poster in WWII, he used Botts instead. The poster, now iconic, was a direct mimic of a British recruitment poster from WWI that depicted the famous Lord Kitchener holding the same pose. Flagg said he chose Botts “because he had the longest arms, the longest nose, and the bushiest eyebrows.”
A Tibetan Skeleton Dancer, 1925
This photo, first carried in a 1928 edition of National Geographic, shows a Tibetan skeleton dancer in full regalia. The photo was attended by the caption, “With huge cadaver masks, imitation tiger-skin skirts, and enormous claws, this performer and his seven similarly garbed companions strike terror to the hearts of spectators in the Old Dance. They are assistants of Showa the Deer, messenger of Yama.”
The Skeleton Dance is meant to convey a message of transience. Transience of the physical body as well as transient of thought and emotion. The skeletons in this photo were played by monks. They were likely about to perform, or had just performed, the Dance of the Lords of the Cemetery, meant to encourage its audience to relinquish their reservations about mortality.
Though Skeleton Dances are still performed today, many of them have remained completely hidden from outsiders. These secret dances are the privilege only of chod initiates, performed in preparation for periods of solitary reflection in graveyards and other locations associated with death.
The photo was originally in black and white and later colorized. It is surprisingly vivid for a photograph taken in 1925. This costume is as startling today as it probably was then.
Poland, As Seen From German Aircraft, 1939
A German bomber pilot looks down on an untrammeled Polish city in 1939. This amazing and haunting photograph captures the aggression of the Nazis, who invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. It was the aggression that sent Europe cascading into the Second World War.
The Nazis were realizing German military designs on Poland that had been formed in the 1920s. The Germans’ plans were thwarted by the Treaty of Versailles and a dramatically weakened military. The Nazis’ rise to power was fueled in part by a hunger to reclaim formerly German territories in places like Poland, and bringing the nation to heel. Some historians have even claimed that Hitler was animated as much by anti-Polish bigotry as anti-Jewish bigotry before the outbreak of the War.
Poland appealed to France and Britain for military assistance after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Poland rejected Nazi demands that they cede major portions of their territory. The situation deteriorated.
During the course of the War, nearly one fifth of Poland’s population died. That enormous ratio translates to roughly six million people. The majority of the people killed were civilians, as a consequence of war crimes. Between fifty and eighty million people died in the War in total.
Marilyn Monroe’s First Marriage, 1942
Marilyn Monroe married an LA police officer named James Dougherty on June 19, 1942. The two had met the previous June. Monroe, real name Norma Jean Baker, was only sixteen at the time of this marriage.
James met Baker through his family, who were the next door neighbors of Baker’s mother’s friend Grace Goddard. Goddard eventually took Jean under her roof, after her mother Gladys’s struggles with mental illness led to Jean being assigned to foster homes.
Goddard’s husband’s employer relocated him to West Virginia. Unable to take Baker with them and not wanting to release her back into the foster system, Goddard floated the idea of James marrying her.
Apparently, the marriage was not a mere formality. In an interview, James explained, “We decided to get married to prevent her from going back to a foster home, but we were in love.” The two of them wed, then moved into a four-bedroom home. Jean apparently called her husband “Daddy.”
The marriage wasn’t terrible, but apparently wasn’t great, either. Monroe said of her relationship with James, “[the] marriage didn’t make me sad, but it didn’t make me happy, either. My husband and I hardly spoke to each other. This wasn’t because we were angry. We had nothing to say. I was dying of boredom.”
The Old Cincinnati Library, Date Unknown
The Old Cincinnati Library is one of the most remarkable, and visually impressive, libraries ever built. It was constructed in 1874, featuring marble floors, five levels of shelving made of solid cast iron and a beautiful skylight. The Library cost the equivalent of nearly eight million of today’s dollars. It was home to about sixty thousand books. Unfortunately, the library was demolished in favor of building a newer library with more amenities.
The stacks were getting overcrowded. The library also suffered from inadequate ventilation and bad upkeep.
The old library, while suffering from some architectural flaws, was still an amazing thing to behold. When you entered the library, you walked under bust sculptures of Shakespeare, Milton and Ben Franklin. The interior of the library resembled a grand cathedral. You could look up through four stories of iron bookshelves to marvel at the enormous skylight on the ceiling. The scene would have been illuminated by rays of sunlight coming in through side windows.
The newspaper The Enquirer described the library upon its grand opening, “The main hall is a splended work. The hollow square within the columns is lighted by an arched clear roof of prismatic glass set in iron, the light of which is broken and softened by a paneled ceiling of richly-colored glass. One is impressed not only with the magnitude and beauty of the interior, but with its adaptation to the purpose it is to serve.”
Pablo Escobar’s Rhinos, Date Unknown
A soldier at Pablo Escobar’s compound observes two of his pet rhinos. The rhinos are one of the features of Hacienda Napoles, Escobar’s enormous estate in Bogota, Colombia. In the early eighties, Escobar built a small zoo on the grounds.
In addition to the rhinos, Escobar owned many other ill-gotten wild animals. He had elephants, hippos and giraffes, which were all open for viewing by the public. The zoo also featured multiple statues of dinosaurs.
The animals were sent to zoos around Colombia when the Hacienda was seized in the nineties. All the animals, that is, except the hippos. The hippos were never evacuated, remaining in the swamp where they lived. They procreated over the years. The area was eventually turned back into a zoo. It’s unknown how many hippos there actually are – there may be as many as sixty.
Pablo Escobar, nicknamed “The King of Cocaine,” was the wealthiest criminal in the history of the world. At his peak, he was responsible for supplying about 80% of the cocaine trafficked to the United States. In the early nineties, his net worth was estimated at around $30 billion American. The explosion of cocaine’s popularity in the US saw about eighty tons of coke being shipped into the US from Colombia every month in the eighties.
An Early X-Ray, c. 1914
Dr. Maxime Menard watches an X-ray in progress at the radiology department of the Cochin hospital in Paris. You will notice the doctor’s close proximity to the machine, and the absence of protective clothing. His frequent operation of the machine would lead to him having a finger amputated from radiation-related cancer.
The X-ray was originally met with skepticism when the discovery was first announced. The New York Times reported on the new technology as the “alleged discovery of how to photograph the invisible.” Turns out it was one of the most important discoveries in the history of medical science.
X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Rontgen, a German physics professor, in 1895. Rontgen was conducting experiments with Lenard and Crookes tubes when he made the discovery. He wrote up his findings in a report titled “On a new kind of ray: A preliminary communication,” and submitted it to a medical journal. It was the first paper ever written on X-rays. He gave it the name “X” ray to denote that its nature was still unknown. In America, they’re still known as X-rays. In other parts of the world, though, they’re still referred to by an old name, “Rontgen rays.”
Rontgen was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery.
American Nazis, 1937
The New Jersey division of the German American Bund parades down the street on July 18, 1937.
This is a largely forgotten chapter in American history, when Hitler’s ascension to power provoked a significant number of sympathetic Americans to form pro-Nazi political groups. The most influential was the German American Bund, who signaled their allegiance by wearing Nazi uniforms, replete with swastikas. Although they courted official sanction by the German Nazis, they never really got it. They were also largely rejected by American Germans. Undeterred, the Bund agitated against Jews and in support of fascism.
The German-American Bund was an outgrowth of the “Friends of New Germany,” a group started by an American German named Heinz Spanknobel under the guidance of Rudolf Hess. The organization was founded in New York, and also had a large chapter in Chicago. The “rebrand” to the German American Bund was a reaction to press coverage that accused the group of being unpatriotic.
The Bund formed multiple training camps around the country. It had an organizational system modeled after that of Nazi Germany, led by Fritz Julius Kuhn, to whom the organization ceded total power. It was a poor model – Kuhn embezzled $14,000.
Soviet Soldiers Undergo Tank Training, 1943
This intense training exercise, conducted before the Battle of Kursk, was meant to decondition soldiers from the fear of tanks. It was also an illustration in the importance of digging trenches narrow and deep enough to support the weight of a tank. The exercise was called “ironing.”
In response, the Nazis invented a technique called “milling,” in which they would drive rapidly from side to side over enemy foxholes and trenches until the soldiers trapped underneath were crushed to death.
The Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle ever, with roughly eight thousand tanks entering combat. The majority were Soviet tanks. In total, about two million soldiers fought in the battle. Thankfully, the Soviets were victorious. A chastened Germany launched no further major assaults on the Soviet line, assuming a defensive strategy. There were an estimated 500,000 German casualties at the Battle of Kursk. The Soviets, in turn, suffered about 860,000. The USSR paid an enormous price, in human life, to end the War. Their casualties far outstrip those of any state that participated in WWII. American casualties, despite the impression given by media about the War, were relatively very small. In fact, the United States had the smallest total percentage of population lost in the War of any country involved.
First Class in the Sixties
This photo shows first-class passengers on a Swissair flight in the sixties. Some things immediately jump out as novel. The most conspicuous detail is the cart of fresh food, prepared on the spot. This approach has been abandoned in favor of pre-packaged foods that are easier to transport and store. Many passengers would probably be happy to pay up for this treatment, though.
The second detail is the bright colors. The interiors of aircraft are the subject of extensive R&D into what will produce the calmest atmosphere, which has set a standard of more muted colors.
The third is the passengers’ formal dress. Much like a trip to the movie theater, people during this period of history typically dressed up to fly.
Flying is not necessarily more comfortable today than it was in yesteryear. Leg room has shrunk significantly. The price of food is also astronomically higher – food actually used to be free on planes. Flights also operate with a significantly diminished number of attendants on hand.
What we lose in terms of convenience and ability to stretch our legs is at least partially made up for by not being required to wear a full suit just to board a plane.
Winchester Hotel Fire, 1906
This eerie photograph shows San Francisco’s Winchester Hotel ablaze following the 1906 earthquake. The Hearst Building, seen on the left, was also a casualty of the fire. It fell victim to a controlled dynamite demolition meant to collapse it into a fire break between the Winchester and the rest of the city.
At the time, San Francisco was still a new city. It had sprung up in the preceded two to three decades from a relatively small settlement to a booming urban center home to roughly 410,000 full time residents. The 1906 earthquake was absolutely devastating to the city, which was just getting its legs.
The quake, estimated at 7.9 on the Richter scale, struck early in the morning on April 18. It was so violent that shaking was felt as far north as Eureka and as far south as the Salinas Valley. After the initial wave of destruction caused by the quake itself came rampant fires that weren’t put out for days. The damage was incredible. More than eighty percent of San Francisco was completely destroyed, and around three thousand people lost their lives. The 1906 earthquake is still one of the worst natural disasters in American history. It is still the single deadliest natural disaster in the history of California.
A Greaser, 1910
When you hear the term “greaser,” you probably associate it with men with slicked-back pompadours, leather jackets and wallet chains. Before the term was linked to John Travolta, though, it referred to laborers who lubricated machinery with oil, or transported oil – typically on ships, railyards, mines and factories.
This greaser was named Shorpy Higginbotham. At the time of the photo, he claimed to be fourteen years old. He was likely younger. He was a greaser at a coal mine. A dangerous job, especially considering the high risk of being struck and killed by a coal car.
The photo was taken by Lewis Hine, who photographed child laborers in America from 1908 to 1924. He was a reformer, who took these photos in the hopes that they would encourage the country to pass legislation to regulate child labor.
1916 saw the first legal headway made on child labor law, with the passage of the Keating-Owen Act. The Act was soon repealed by the Supreme Court, setting a pattern that would keep child labor protections in perpetual limbo until the thirties. In 1938, the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act codified the starting working age as 18 years. It is still the legal standard in the United States. Interesting that, like the two-day weekend and 8-hour workday, this hard-fought labor victory is now taken largely for granted.
The Wuppertal Suspension Railway, 1913
The Wuppertal Suspension Railway sits above the Wupper river in Wuppertal, Germany. It was an unusual suspension bridge design then, as it is now. Instead of spanning the riverbanks, it runs parallel to them.
The Bridge supported a hanging rail system that stretched for nearly nine miles, called the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn. At the time of this photo, the Schwebebahn was already twelve years old. It was extremely popular. By 1925, it had carried an estimated twenty million people.
Construction on the bridge started in 1898. It was designed by an engineer named Eugen Langen and its construction was supervised by Wilhelm Feldmann, Germany’s master builder. Emperor Wilhelm II himself rode in a car during a trial run in 1900. The following year, the monorail was opened for public use. It was an expensive project. It cost about sixteen million gold marks.
World War II saw the railway badly damaged, forcing it to close. It was operational again in 1946.
One well known anecdote centers around a juvenile circus elephant, named Tuffi, who did not appreciate being granted a free ride for a publicity stunt. Tuffi panicked in the car, flinging herself out of a window and falling into the river below. Thankfully, she was unharmed.
British War Rations, WWII
By modern standards, this is about enough food to last one person two days, at a stretch. It represents the standard wartime ration of food in Britain. For a week. For two people.
At the outset of the War, Britain was importing at least two thirds of all its food. The proliferation of Nazi U-boats in the waters surrounding the islands made it extremely difficult to get an adequate amount of food into the UK. Rationing was imposed on British civilians in order to protect sailors, and to save money for weapons that would otherwise be spent on import tariffs. Rationing was actually popular, with roughly 60% of Brits lending their voluntary approval.
Each person in Britain was given a ration booklet, which they could show to grocers for their food. The program was introduced incrementally, with only sugar, bacon and butter being initially rationed. As the War progressed, the list of rationed items expanded. By the spring of 1941, the list included cheese, preserves, tea and cooking fats.
Depending on shortages and windfalls, the standard ration could fluctuate up or down. Some foods remained unrationed, like fruits and vegetables. Their consumption was, however, limited by a fundamentally short supply.
Union Mortars, 1862
Officers of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery pose next to thirteen-inch seacoast mortars of Federal Battery No. 4. The photo was taken close to Yorktown, Virginia.
Coastal artillery was established as a branch of the Army in 1794. A number of construction projects were undertaken to fortify the coast with artillery, lasting until 1816. After the Civil War, masonry forts were deemed obsolete.
The American Civil War, which lasted for four years, was the bloodiest war in American history. It resulted in the defeat of the Confederate States of America; a critical foundational moment of our current political reality.
Among the civic legacies of the Civil War is the abolition of slavery, a benchmark in black Americans’ long, still waged battle for equality under the law, in letter and in practice. The Union victory ushered in the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
The Reconstruction period, which followed the close of the War, is held to have ended with the Compromise of 1877. Federal troops were removed from Southern states and Ruther B. Hayes won the presidential election. The Civil War’s effects are still deeply felt today. Public display of the Confederate flag and statues depicting Confederate heroes is hotly contested in many states.
Downtown Detroit is lit up on a 1942 night. The photo shows a busy, clean city at the height of its power and prestige. Detroit is, today, one of the most economically uneven cities in the country, notorious for problems with urban blight and unemployment.
Detroit was buoyed by a boom in the domestic automotive industry. In the forties, it was a bustling metropolis. During the War years, factories were repurposed to produce munitions and vehicles for the military. These factories were operated mostly by women, who stepped in when the men went off to fight. The war effort also saw many black workers enter the city. They were met with severe hostility, largely intimidated out of moving into white neighborhoods or share assembly lines with white workers.
The city’s period of rapid growth hit a brick wall. With auto production moving overseas, the city was plunged into a crisis of unemployment and poverty that was exacerbated by white flight. Since its heyday, Detroit’s population has plunged by over 60%. Even so, the city is one of the most culturally influential in the country, especially important in the world of music. It is the birthplace of techno and house music, as well as many forms of motown and hip-hop.
Polar Bear Tries To Escape Flooded Enclosure, 1910
This polar bear, held at the Botanical Gardens in Paris, is seen here trying to climb out of its enclosure amidst a flood. The city was flooded in January of 1910, when exceptionally heavy rainfall caused the Seine River to swell. Water bubbled up out of subway tunnels and sewers. Despite not overflowing its banks within city limits, Paris was nevertheless flooded. In surrounding settlements, the Seine did run rampant.
It was certainly out of the ordinary, but there was a precedented of winter flooding in Paris. Thousand of residents were forced to evacuate. Life in the city became much more challenging, as the water forced much of its civic infrastructure to shut down. Many people were stranded by water, requiring rescue by police and firefighters who floated the streets in boats. Public buildings were converted into shelters to house the displaced.
Teams of workers were thankfully able to prevent the Seine from overflowing the quay walls keeping it at bay inside the city. They had to build makeshift levees in great haste. They held. The fate of the polar bear is unknown. Its spectators seem entirely too confident that it won’t find clawholds in the wall. Hopefully they were right.
Chinese-American Woman Signals She Is Not Japanese, 1941
Ruth Lee, a Chinese-American woman who worked at a Chinese restaurant in Miami, sunbathes with a Chinese flag (now the Taiwanese flag) so that she won’t be harassed by people assuming she’s Japanese. This was taken soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when anti-Japanese jingoism in the United States was ratcheting up to the fever pitch that would eventually see Japanese Americans rounded up and sent to internment camps. Many businesses owned by Japanese-Americans were also vandalized.
Unfortunately, persecution of the Japanese in America was not met with much public sympathy by Chinese Americans. There is the obvious longstanding violent history between the two nations, and there was also the issue of self-preservation. Eager to find acceptance among white Americans, many Chinese-Americans supported the narrative that Japanese-Americans were foreign agents.
Chinese-Americans came to occupy many of the business spaces left vacant after Japanese-Americans were arrested. The agricultural sector also became a large-scale employer of Chinese-Americans when their labor pool was shrunk by the Japanese internment campaign.
Although WWII saw increased social and political parity extended to Chinese-Americans, the ensuing Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria saw it revoked.
John Smith, Date Unknown
This man went by many names. His Anglicanized name was John Smith. He was also called Gaa-binagwiiyaas, which translates as “which the flesh peels off.” He also had the unflattering nickname “Old Wrinkled Meat.” He was, during his life, thought to be the oldest living Native American.
His obituary in 1922 reported his age as 138 years. An obvious embellishment. His real age remains undetermined. Smith, a Chippewa man, had eight wives and one adopted son named Tom Smith. He lived in Cass Lake, Minnesota. Two years before his death, Smith starred in a motion picture that was taken on tour around the country.
Ransom J. Powell, Federal Commissioner of Indian Enrollment, claimed when he died, “It was disease and not age that made him look the way he did.” Powell claimed that his records proved that Smith was only 88 when he passed away. Smith judged his own age in relation to the Leonid meteor shower that occurred on November 13, 1833, a dramatic event that was an unforgettable spectacle for anyone who saw it. A man named Paul Buffalo claimed that he heard Smith say he was between seven and ten years old when “the stars fell.”
Inflatable Tank, 1939
This inflatable, rubber tank was not a gag. Inflatable decoy tanks were a regularly used ploy during WWII. While it may seem a bit goofy, the payoff for a successful deception could be huge.
The strategy actually dates back to the First World War, when the Allies used dummy British tanks made of cloth stretched over wooden frames. Some of them were even outfitted with wheels, and towed by horses from battlefield to battlefield. The Germans employed the same tactic.
They were used much more during WWII. There was an Allied force of 1,100 men, called the Ghost Army, who were assigned specifically to deception duty. Using inflatable tanks and artillery, they were able to create a convincing illusion of up to thirty thousand Allied soldiers. It was a cheap way to prevent the enemy from exploiting weakly defended parts of the Allied line. Deception could also flush Axis troops into disadvantageous positions, or draw them away from attack points. The Ghost Army employed visual, audio and radio tactics to fool the enemy. By all accounts, they were quite successful. The unit attracted many creative types, such as artists and designers. Seems ripe for a movie treatment to us.
Japanese Removed From Bainbridge Island, 1942
A line of Japanese Americans files onto a train in Seattle, Washington on March 30, 1942. A crowd of onlookers gawks at them from a bridge above. The roughly 225 people, constituting the Japanese population of nearby Bainbridge Island, would be carried by train, ferry and bus to the internment camps where they’d remain imprisoned until the end of the War.
The internment camps remain one of the greatest blemished on America’s domestic history, an article of enduring shame. The internment was supported by public opinion, which held to a fallacious theory that Japanese-Americans were staging a massive sabotage effort against the American government. FDR, caving to pressure from west coast farming interests (likely motivated by the fact that their primary competition was largely Japanese-American) to place them in extended custody.
Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which mandated that all Japanese-Americans leave the West Coast, no matter if they were legal citizens. It is important to note that Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, who represented a much larger proportion of the population, did not receive similar treatment. Nor did Italian and German Americans. At their peak, the internment camps held about 120,000 people.
Reindeer On The Battlefield, 1941
This incredible photograph foregrounds a reindeer startled by bombing behind it. An absolutely remarkable stroke of luck that the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei, happened to be there to capture it. Or was it?
Khaldei, a celebrated Soviet photographer, staged many of his photos, or edited them after the fact, to create more powerful images. It was a practice he admitted openly. The effect is not without significant artistic merit. Khaldei took the photo of the reindeer during a German air raid, and later imposed it over images of a squadron of British Hawker Hurricanes and a hillside being exploded by bombs.
Although the final work was an artifice, Klahdei insists that it was not a fiction. He claims that there was really a reindeer that would show up in the midst of air raids in Murmansk. In an interview, he described an encounter with the reindeer:
“During the bombings, a reindeer came out of the tundra. He wanted to be with people. They built him a shed to live in, and gave him a name, Yasha. Every time the alarm sounded, he ran to be with the soldiers–he didn’t want to be alone. During one of the air raids, I took this shot. In 1944, when the battle for Murmansk was over, the soldiers didn’t know what to do with him. They loaded him into a truck and took him back to the tundra, thinking he would join the other deer. But he couldn’t understand what was happening. He ran after the truck as long as he could”.
Nixon Visits Quarantined Apollo 11 Astronauts, 1969
The three returned astronauts who manned the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned flight to the moon, are in good spirits while being visited by President Nixon during a mandatory quarantine period.
The astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin Jr.) landed safely in an expanse of open ocean about eight hundred miles southwest of Hawaii on July 24, 1969. As soon as they were removed from their craft, they were put in anti-contamination suits and sealed for three weeks inside of a retooled Airstream trailer. This precaution seems silly now, but at the time, science was not certain that they astronauts would not carry alien pathogens back from the surface of the moon. At least, that was the story given. The “Mobile Quarantine Facility” was meant to keep Americans from flying into a panic over space plague if one of the three men had happened to come down with a terrestrial illness in the weeks following their return. The airstream was apparently hilariously poorly sealed – the astronauts reported that they could see straight through many cracks in its exterior.
Nevertheless, the men were restricted to the trailer for three weeks, during which time they spoke with visitors over a microphone system. Quarantines were no longer deemed necessary after the Apollo 14 mission.
Woman Who Was Struck By A Meteorite, 1954
Ann Elizabeth Hodges was taking a peaceful nap inside her home one afternoon in 1954 when she was struck by a meteorite. It was the first known case of an object from space injuring a person in the United States.
The meteorite, roughly the size of a softball, crashed through the roof of the Sylacauga, Alabama home, struck a radio, and bounced into Hodges’ thigh as she was napping under a pile of quilts. When she saw the meteorite laying next to her on the floor, and the huge hole in her roof, she assumed she had been ambushed by children. She ran outside, only to see a large, black cloud looming ominously in the sky.
People from the area say they watched a fireball shoot from the heavens into the house, creating a plume of white, or white-brown debris. The majority of eyewitnesses thought an airplane had crashed.
In this photo, Hodges is examined by Dr. Moody Jacobs. He judged that no long-term damage had been done. She was lucky – the meteorite weighed eight an a half pounds. The meteorite was confiscated by the chief of police, and then given to the Air Force, despite the protests of Hodges and her landlord Bertie Guy. Eventually, they got the rock back, at a cost of $500. It was a bad investment. It took the better part of a year to reclaim the meteorite, by which point everyone had forgotten the story and it was not worth much money. She donated it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, the whole episode caused her to have a nervous breakdown, strained her marriage to the point of divorced, and may have contributed to her early death at age 52.
Chinese New Year in New York, 1984
This photograph was taken by Bud Glick as part of the New York Chinatown History Project. The project sought to document daily life for the residents of New York’s Chinatown district. It came at an interesting and important time in the neighborhood’s history. A wave of immigration was bringing many younger faces to Chinatown.
Glick had an initially rough road to gaining the residents’ trust. He was turned away regularly. Possibly because he did not speak Chinese. However, with some persistence, he was able to persuade many Chinese residents to let him photograph them in public, and eventually in their homes and places of business.
Gibb was impressed by just how quickly the ground beneath him moved. “All communities change. However, the incredibly rapid growth and change distinguishes Chinatown from many other communities. What felt big at the time now seems small. Chinatown has expanded tremendously. It seems qualitatively different now,” Gibb remarked about his time photographing the residents.
“Looking at the Chinatown of 30-plus years ago, I realize what a unique and fleeting time it was. Within that community of young immigrant families, there still existed (in the same place but in many ways separate) a remnant of a much earlier immigrant experience.”
The Normandy Invasion, 1944
This photo shows the sheer scale of the Normandy invasion force in June of 1944, three days after a beachhead had been secured. This was the single largest amphibious attack in the history of warfare. In total, about 160,000 troops, 195,700 navy personnel and 5,000 ships participated in the invasion.
The landing ships are offloading cargo onto Omaha beach during low tide. Of special note are the balloons suspended in the air. These are “barrage ballons,” secured by metal wires at a height that was meant to force Axis bombers to fly at a height that would make them targetable by anti-aircraft fire. It was also hoped that some of the bombers would hit the wires and crash. Some of them were even equipped with explosives. The five beachheads won by the Allies did not form a contiguous line until the twelfth of June.
During the initial invasion, the battle was so savage that roughly 4% of the sand on those beaches is made of granulated shrapnel. At least four and a half thousand Allied soldiers were killed on D-Day, and between 4,000 and 9,000 German soldiers. D-Day has been portrayed in many films, television shows and works of literature.
A Moscow Athletic Parade, 1956
This is the Sportsmen’s Parade, held in Moscow in 1956. The parades, which showed off the excellence of the Soviet physique, were echoes of Stalinist parades that were held to popularize fitness among the citizens of the USSR.
This fitness push was led by a body called “Ready for Labor and Defense of the USSR,” abbreviated as “ITO” in Russian. It was the core fitness regimen of the USSR, first introduced in 1931 with the mission to “enhance the physical education and readiness for mobilization of the Soviet people, primarily the younger generation.” The ITO applied to everyone between the ages of ten and sixty. Unlike the American vision of fitness as a testament to individual will, physical fitness was considered a civic responsibility for the health and strength of the USSR in aggregate.
It featured many track and field exercises, as well as gymnastics, shooting and other miscellaneous sports. People who excelled in these were awarded gold and silver badges. The program halted in the majority of Soviet republics after the dissolution of the USSR, though it was eventually renewed in Russia. If the notion of a state-run fitness program for children gives you the creeps, pause to consider the physical education programs in all American public schools, and the presidential fitness tests.
KKK Members Ride A Ferris Wheel, 1926
This photo, taken in Cañon City, Colorado, shows a group of fully hooded KKK members riding a ferris wheel at a traveling amusement park. Cañon City was the Klan capital of Coloardo in the twenties. The Klan had an extremely strong presence in the state. The governor, Clarence Morley, was in the KKK. Rice Means, a Colorado Senator, had the Klan’s endorsement. Benjamin Stapleton, mayor of Denver, had intimate Klan ties and Cañon City’s First Baptist Church’s minister was the state’s Grand Dragon.
The Klansmen in this photo were reportedly invited by the carnival’s owner, William Forsythe, who was himself a member. Beginning in 1921, the Klan changed its public face to be that of a fraternal organization first and a race hate cult second. The advents of cross burnings and large-scale public parades, like the one pictured here, were still recent.
While the KKK is a (mercifully) fringe organization today, at the time, it was a massively powerful presence in daily American life. By their own estimates, the KKK claimed membership from 15% of America’s population. Excluding ineligible women and minorities, of course. This would put their ranks somewhere between four and five million men. While the ferris wheel photo is whimsical and absurd, it is also an illustration of how mainstreamed the Klan was in its heyday.
A Bike Messenger, 1908
This photograph was part of a project commissioned by the National Child Labor Committee in 1908. The Committee hired a photographer and sociologist named Lewis Hine to photograph poor working conditions for child laborers in multiple industries, across many cities.
Bicycle messengers have existed basically since the invention of the bicycle in the mid 1800s. They were used by the Paris stock exchange, as well as by Western Union in multiple American cities. Bike messengers became more and more commonly used by drug stores and telegraph offices, who pushed the cyclists well beyond what we would today consider a humane workload. In addition to the long hours, the messengers’ routes often took them to dangerous parts of their city.
Hines’s photos helped fuel the child labor reform efforts in the early 1900s, which culminated in the passage of the Keatings-Owen Act in 1916. The Act established the country’s first age restriction on employees, as well as the first limit on shift lengths for minors. The Keatings-Owen Act was eventually repealed by the Supreme Court, but it set a precedent for more labor reform law to come in the thirties. Today, child labor restrictions, like the two day weekend, are taken for granted. It was only through bitter, organized struggle that these legal norms were set, though.
British Pilot Gets Haircut, 1942
A pilot in the Royal Air Force receives a haircut and reads the novel Greenmantle, set during WWI, in a quiet moment. The pilot is Francis Mellersh, two-time recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Together, they form a tableau that conveys many of the qualities the British prided themselves on most highly – reserve, dignity and poise.
Mellersh’s daughter said of the photograph, “We have the original of the photo, and the book (he was crazy about John Buchan) and that bloody pipe killed him in the end at 72. I’m afraid those who have been to war and daily diced with death are rather cavalier with their health.”
After the war, he stayed in the Royal Air Force for over three decades. Until very late in life, he still flew airplanes. Like many veterans, he did not often speak about his war experiences. He was reportedly a humble and quiet man.
A Supermarine Spitfire sits behind him in the photograph. The Spitfire was the cornerstone of the British air strategy. Without them, the UK would likely have fallen to the Nazis. The exceptionally fast and heavily armed Spitfire was instrumental in thwarting the Germans in the Battle of Britain.
A Typesetter, 1942
A typesetter arranges the sports section of the New York Times, specifically the September 10th, 1942 issues. Typesetting is a forgotten art form – each piece of text had to be manually arranged before the paper could go to print. It was a very specialized job, that carried prestige.
The paper that day probably detailed the Yankees beating the Browns, and reported horse racing scores from the Aqueduct Racetrack. The rest of the paper was probably filled with reports of military developments in the War.
The method this typesetter is using was called the “hot type” method, in which text was arranged with brass letters that were used to make a lead type plate. This method was used both for newspapers and for bound books. The lead plates were reused afterwards, melted down and re-cast into new plates. The health hazards of being exposed to lead fumes were not yet known. The method, and typesetting at large, have been entirely replaced by digital word processing and graphic design software. Analog typesetting is now practiced mostly by hobbyists.
At the time, however, hot type was the fastest method, and produced the cleanest results. The fifties and sixties saw the advent of phototypesetting and electronic typesetting, rendering hot type obsolete.
A Bookmobile, Date Unknown
In bygone eras, the bookmobile was considered much more than a novelty – it was an important public service provided to remote areas and suburbs that had limited library access. The idea was first implemented in the 1800s, when the mobiles were drawn by horses.
The motorized book mobile was conceived of by Sarah Byrd Askew, a librarian. In 1920, Askew took it upon herself to hand-deliver books to areas of rural New Jersey in a Model T. Horse-drawn book carriages remained in vogue for some years after Askew’s experiment.
Books were considered such a necessity of life that book mobiles were included as a WPA project between 1935 and 1943. The Pack Horse Library Project brought books into the most hard to reach inhabited parts of Appalachia. Project employees even hiked books into those areas on foot. It is hard to imagine someone undertaking something like this now.
Nowadays, libraries are pretty much just a venue for people to get free internet access. Literacy is at record lows. Unfortunately, the book mobile is now basically just a kitsch relic of a bygone era. They’re not gone, though. There are still a small number of book mobiles in operation today.
HMS Invincible, 1982
The British HMS Invincible is greeted with much fanfare on its return journey from the Falklands Conflict, 1982.
The Invincible, the seventh ship to bear that name, was deployed along with the HMS Hermes and a coterie of support ships to the Falkland Islands. When India bought the Hermes, the Invincible was designated the new flagship of the British navy.
The British war cabinet authorized military repossession of the islands from Argentina on April 20, 1982. On May 30, the Argentine Navy attempted to destroy the HMS Invincible with the last AM39 Exocet missile in their arsenal. Argentinia claims that the missile connected, but Britain denies. The ship also showed no signs of having been shot by a missile when it returned to the UK.
The ship was also used in the Yugoslav Wars and first Iraq War. The Invincible was decommissioned in 2005 and sold to Leyal Ship Recycling, a Turkish company, in 2011.
The war’s outcome led to widespread criticism of Argentina’s saber rattling government, and a strengthening of the UK’s Conservative party. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine author, described the war as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
Romanian Demonstrators On A Tank, 1989
These protestors sit atop a tank as it rolls past a building that appears to be on fire, on December 22, 1989. They were demonstrating against the administration of Nicolae Ceausescu, who governed the country for twenty-one consecutive years. Ceausescu was a dictator, who cultivated Eastern Europe’s most prolific spy network and wielded a secret police called the Securitate against his political adversaries. His policies would eventually lead Romania into an economic crisis.
Unlike most Eastern Bloc countries, Romania remained independent from the USSR. Even as the Soviets liberalized their policies in the late eighties, Ceausescu granted no concessions to the liberalizing tide. Starting in 1981, he launched a series of austerity measures with the ostensible aim of resolving the country’s $10 billion debt. Austerity took the form of food, gas and heat rationing.
The country, already oppressed by a Securitate that was draconian even by Soviet standards, was plunged into conditions that afforded scant dignity or comfort. Anti-government protests broke out in Timisoara in December of 1989. Ceausescu ordered the military to fire on the protesters, leading to many deaths. As it became known that he was responsible for the order, widespread demonstrations erupted. They would come to be known as the Romanian Revolution, and reached fruition when Ceausescu’s government was violently overthrown. Ceausescu attempted to flee, was captured by a mutinous military and executed by firing squad.
The Moulin Rouge, 1914
This colorized photo shows the infamous Moulin Rouge just one year before it was burned to the ground, in 1914. The Paris cabaret was first opened in October of 1889.
It was created by Joseph Oller, a Spaniard, and Charles Zidler. Shrewd businessmen, they intended for the Rouge to be a place for Paris elites to be able to safely “slum” in the Montmartre district. It was an immediate hit. Oller and Zidler started calling it “The First Palace of Women.”
An exterior decorated with still-uncommon electric lights added to its glamor. The building was also outfitted with a large windmill, a nod to Montmartre’s history as a home to many windmills. A huge elephant, made of stucco, was placed in the venue’s garden, which came to be known as the Jardin de Paris Elephant. For a price, visitors could climb into the elephant via a staircase in one of its legs. Inside, you could take opium and watch belly dancers.
The name is now synonymous with the 2001 movie. The venue made quite a cultural impact while it was still open, associated with the heights of debauchery and hedonism. It now only exists in stories, and in fictional portrayals.