This article was originally published on HistoricTalk
When we look at photos from the distant past, the black and white might not seem so fresh. But actually, you probably don't know how crazy the stories were, and still are to this day! It's easy to think people way back then were simpler and more restrained, but boy, do we have news for you. Check out the most fascinating old photographs and the even more fascinating stories behind them. We know you never learned this in class!
By now, we've had more than a few actors try Joker roles. Every version is consistently terrifying. But who really started them all? As it turns out, it was this actor, Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine. By his name, you might guess he was a foreigner, and you'd be right. Conrad was a German Expressionist film star. In 1928, he played this character in The Man Who Laughs. Looks familiar, right?
This is actually an unrelated character, and the story had nothing to do with Batman. But the early DC Comics used him as a visual prototype for the Joker, without a doubt. He's got the look!
Viruses have been going around for goodness knows how long. What's a professional smoocher supposed to do? In 1937, actors Stanley Morton and Betty Furness were asked to rehearse on-screen kisses before filming began. They are both wearing masks because it was deemed safer to kiss with cloth between them. An old article explained that this measure would stop four out of five germs. We’re not sure that was scientific, but they had hope!
Each kiss had to be practiced around 20 times, and getting sick was a big deal back then. Without much medicine to help, the flu could be a deadly deal. Even now, it kills!
According to Italian starlet Sophia Loren: "Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical." But if we look at this photo, we see she has something else reflecting in her own eyes, when she sees a rival beauty. This is a scene from a promotional party for the actress in 1957. While sitting glammed up at a dinner table, we see the blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield leaning in. Where did she come from, and what is she doing here?
Sophia's face says it all. She's not pleased that she is being overshadowed by another pinup, at her own event. It's supposed to be her time to shine! We definitely get it.
All Hallows Eve is the spookiest day of the year, and that's how we like it. But is that a new tradition? Not at all, as this vintage photo shows. Around 1900, we see an adult standing behind a kids' lunch table at a school. We suspect it was a teacher, but this is no normal day at work. Today, the uniform is a ghost costume. But is that all?
No, there's more! The room is decorated with cutouts of witches and cats, and there is even a jack-o-lantern. We're glad to see people of the past loved creepy vibes as much as we do. Isn't it just the best?
It sounds cruel today, but people born with strange features used to tour around as circus freaks. That's what they were called, officially! In some cases, it was the only way for them to make money. Frank Lentini was such a person, back in the early 1900s. Here he is, and it's clear that he has too many legs. If you look closer, you might discover that he had 3 legs and four feet with 16 toes. He also had two totally functioning sets of man parts. How unusual!
The source of all his extremities was actually a parasitic twin in the womb that never fully developed. They just fused together! Frank toured with every big circus during his lifetime.
Brits know that the queen can always count on her guards in red with big, furry hats. In case you’re wondering, they are made out of real Canadian black bears' fur. Far from a fashion statement, the hats were originally designed to intimidate other armies in battle. Today, they just stand around Buckingham palace and make tourists smile. They can never smile back! But come on, don't they ever break character?
Here, it appears a guardsman did step out of line in 1957, a rare event. But he wasn't rebelling on the job. He fainted during an event to celebrate the Queen's birthday. His colleague tries to hold him back, without stepping out of line himself. Impressive attempt, sir!
There's no doubt about it: We hate hearing our alarm in the morning. But what if we didn't have one? In the old days, people had to make it to work without a device like that. How did they ever get up on time? It was all thanks to these workers, the knocker-ups. In England and Ireland in the 1920s, waking up the workforce of the city was a profession in itself. Thankfully so!
The technique was simple: Rap on windows with a long stick. These workers made a basic buck if they knocked. But if they stayed and let sleepers hit snooze a few times, they got a bonus!
We've all heard of something called tear gas, but what exactly is it? Well, it's not just one thing, as it turns out. The term may refer to a few different compounds that scientists engineered to seriously irritate human eyes and lungs. Yes, on purpose! The idea was that it could be used as a low-grade weapon for crowd control or wartime. And indeed, it has been used for these very purposes, like in WWII, Vietnam, and modern riots.
Here, we see a test for Londoners to prepare for a German invasion. Mom and toddler pass a sign: 'Warning. Tear Gas Is Being Discharged'. 1941 was an intense year!
Anna Nicole Smith was a young exotic dancer when she met an elderly billionaire on the job. Late in life, oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall experienced love at first sight. Was it mutual, though? Anna Nicole recalled: "I was 23, and he was 86. I saw a very sick man. I just wanted to just talk with him. There was no physical attraction at all. He was very much attracted to me."
Here, the pair stands on their wedding day in 1991. This couple made national news as a controversy about the young marrying the old for their money. Not long after, the groom passed away. To the family's delight, Anna never really got his estate. Did she deserve it?
You may think you know tall, but have you ever seen Robert Wadlow? This Illinois boy grew to be more than 8 feet tall — 8 foot 11, to be exact. He was used to getting attention, which was basically unavoidable. Robert shared: “The last time I was in St. Louis we stopped at the corner of 6th and Locust streets. You should have seen the crowd. They came from everywhere.”
Sadly, he got a nasty infection and died at just age 22. Here he is at age 19, chatting with a friend and lounging around. He's in a snappy suit, which was no doubt custom-made. Looking dapper, Rob!
In the 90's, there was no Baywatch star bigger than Pamela Anderson. She always stole the show! The buxom blond was a phenomenon, and she liked to date her equivalents in the world of rock and roll. When Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee heard she was suddenly single, he made his move. Pam recalls: "He asked me, 'Is it true you are getting divorced, and, if it's true, what are you doing later. '"
In this historic photo, Pam and Tommy wed on the beach in Cancun in 1995, as fans watch nearby. Clearly, they were a match made in heaven — at least while they lasted.
Womens' fashion has really varied across time. In this photo, we see an ancient trend from Asia that still exists now. Three Burmese women are members of a traveling circus. Here, they've decided to pass the time by playing cards. Members of their native tribe put heavy brass rings on the legs and necks of girls in childhood. The idea was to stretch things out as they grew. Why, though?
Well, it began as a way to stop rival tribes from kidnapping their women. Eventually, it just became a tradition that they felt was central to their culture. Sure seems painful!
The current pandemic may seem like an unprecedented event. But if we think for a moment, we've heard there were other dangerous viruses in the past. Take the 1918 Spanish Flu, for example. When soldiers from WWI returned home, this illness spread like wildfire across the nation. We had a lot less medical know-how, back then, but that didn't stop big-hearted volunteers from helping their neighbors in need. Here, we see Red Cross workers in masks, preparing to do exactly that.
Behind them, a sign reads "If I fail, he dies". The mission was intense, from their point of view. And that message was no joke: Overall, around 675,000 Americans perished from the virus. Sad times!
We've all been there: Working a normal day on the pole, and shaking our bits for cash. Well, maybe not all of us. But certainly, some of us are familiar with these dark arts, and there are rules around the job in most states. This photo tells the story of a pole professional on trial in 1983. A stripper was charged with showing her privates to a police officer, and she's arguing her case. It's impossible, she explains.
How can she prove it? Well, by bending over so all can see her panties cover the area. We think this was the best evidence of all. But wait, what was that officer doing in the club?
Around the turn of the last century, a futuristic form of transport was getting a lot of buzz. The blimp was a new way to sail through the air at low cost: All it required was a big balloon and lot of gas. But this airship idea ended abruptly in 1937 with The Hindenburg disaster, as seen here. This vessel caught fire and 35 passengers died after an explosion over Manchester Township, New Jersey.
The pictures were plastered on newspaper covers all over the world, and it was not the best PR, to say the least. Customer confidence tanked, and the blimp trend ended.
Mental health awareness has really grown in recent years. The profession of psychiatry has come a very long way, too. Back in the day, we really didn't know what was going on with people in distress. All sorts of experimentation happened, and not all of it was pretty. Much of it was nuts! Like this treatment, for example. Here, a nurse at the Horace Berk Memorial Hospital in Philly prepares insulin to inject into a patient.
At the time, the idea was called "insulin shot shock treatment" and the idea was to deprive the brain of sugar energy. Therefore, the craziness would stop happening. Sound effective? It certainly wasn't!
Comedian Robin Williams was a very special man, behind the laughs. He had a big heart, and one of his favorite groups was the homeless. A producer recalled: “When I got Robin Williams’ rider, I was very surprised by what I found...He actually had a requirement that, for every single event or film he did, the company hiring him also had to hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work."
In his free time, he even sought them out and chatted with them. Here he is in 1988, signing autographs at a Boston shelter. His kindness was as legendary as his genius!
In 1950, the USA led the world in the Korean War. The north had invaded the south, and there was some hope the country could be kept together. Now, of course, we know that they are still split. But in this picture, that outcome was not yet known. A room of men poses with funny cones on their heads. If we look closely, we can see they are actually missile noses!
This scene looks pretty futuristic, even though it's more than half a century old now. We now know that soon after this photo, these exploded somewhere!
Queen of country music Dolly Parton has been singing in the biz for half a century. She's made a small fortune of $350 million, with her albums and investments combined. But who was the man who supported it all, by her side, and behind the scenes? Why, it's this fellow right here: Carl Dean. Dolly was lucky enough to meet him on her first day in Nashville. They're still together to this day!
But is he a fan of Dolly, or Dolly's music? According to the singer: "He likes hard rock, he likes Led Zeppelin and bluegrass music, so my music is somewhere in between. He doesn't dislike it, but he doesn't go out of his way to play my records, let's put it that way."
Madame Tussauds is a network of museums around the world, and it all started during the French revolution. The madam herself opened a display of relics from the unrest, and people flocked to see it. Somehow, this evolved into a strange museum with wax replicas of every celebrity we know and love. The main theme seems to be anything that creeps us out! Here, we see how the magic happens.
This photo was snapped in 60s. We see an employee doing her best to select an appropriate eye for a replica of DJ Pete Murray. With so many options, it's a tough choice!
Bad posture is bad news. According to WebMD: "It adds to the stress on your spine. That puts a strain on the bones, muscles, and joints you need to hold your backbone in place. But lousy posture isn't just bad for your back. A constant slump smashes your inside organs together, and makes it harder for your lungs and intestines to work. Over time, that’ll make it hard to digest food or get enough air when you breathe." Yikes!
We never talk about it today, but previous generations really valued posture. Here, we see an incredible event: The 1956 Miss Correct Posture Contest. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners show their awards and X-rays. Nice work, ladies!
At the 1976 Olympics, Bruce Jenner had a record-smashing performance on the track. He won the gold medal in the decathlon, and the nation cheered. How did he pull it off? He shared: "To me, the definition of focus is knowing exactly where you want to be today, next week, next month, next year, then never deviating from your plan. Once you can see, touch and feel your objective, all you have to do is pull back and put all your strength behind it, and you'll hit your target every time."
We think it's clear Bruce was a man who knew how to put his philosophy into practice. After his win, he went around giving inspiring quotes, left and right. He knew what he was talking about!
President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid conservationist who did much to establish our national parks. He loved the great outdoors, and once said: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
Here, he talks the talk and walks the walk at Glacier Point in Yosemite Valley in California. Its peak here is an elevation of 7,214 feet above sea level. That's no easy trek!
Annie Edson Taylor lived around the turn of the last century. She wanted a real thrill for her birthday in 1901. What better way than fall over the widest waterfall in the nation inside of a big barrel? That's exactly what Annie planned, and she had one custom-built for the stunt. Truthfully, she hoped to become rich from it all, somehow. First, she tried it out with a cat. It survived!
Next, she climbed in herself. And yes, she, too survived! A boat fished her out of the water, and everyone learned she was a 63-year-old retired school teacher. It doesn't seem she got wealthy, but she is now infamous!
The cheetah is an African wild cat that can run 80 to 128 km per hour, easy. That makes it the fastest land animal, not just the fastest feline. In its free time, it likes to chase gazelles and impala. Then, of course, it devours them. In recent times, humans started snatching them and bringing them to zoos all around the world. Here, we see a cheetah at a zoo in Berlin, Germany.
The scene is sometime around mid-century. We're not sure if we caught it right before a kill, or if the Germans managed to tame it. Why is it so well behaved around these delicious sheep?
The Golden Gate Bridge connects the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Designed by Joseph Strauss in 1917, it has become an internationally recognized landmark. Today, Frommer's travel guide calls it "possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world." It spans 4,200 feet and 746 feet high. Here, we see it halfway through its construction. We can totally see it taking shape, but it's not quite ready yet.
In this photo, we see a worker running across the platform in 1935. We bet he was proud of all his hard work in the end. Is there a more glorious bridge anywhere in America?
Old-timey inventions are the best, aren't they? Wild and wacky ideas were tested out before our time, and not all of them survived. The market must have decided which ones deserved to go mainstream. This is not one of those winners, but we are intrigued. Behold The mass shaving machine, from the 1800's. It could shave a dozen chaps at once, and that could have saved labor. It could have, but it didn't, in the end.
Here, a comedian revived the contraption for a TV pilot in 1960, demonstrating on live men. The series was called Brainwaves, and it was supposed to show all the almost-inventions we never saw. The show itself never aired, though!
We never hear about kings, these days. But European nations used to have monarchs. In modern times, we rely on parliaments and prime ministers to make decisions, and we vote them in. But let's look at who was in charge in 1910. Here, the royals from every nation in Europe gather to honor a fellow fallen king. It's the funeral of King Edward VII of England. Who is in attendance? This photo shows us exactly who came.
We have King Haakon VII of Norway and Tsar Ferdinand of the Bulgarians. We have King Manuel II of Portugal and the Algarve, as well as Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Prussia. Then, there's King George I of the Hellenes, King Albert I of the Belgians, King Frederick VIII of Denmark, King Alfonso XII of Spain, and King George V of the United Kingdom.
Following the crowd often feels like the natural thing to do. But sometimes, standing up to a mob is the right thing to do. Here, we see an incredible moment in history captured on film. A whole mass of nazi supporters give their signature salute. But one man is standing with his arms down and isn't participating at all. That man is believed to be August Landmesser. What was his issue?
August was a shipyard worker from Hamburg, and he was in love with a Jewish woman named Irma. He wasn't a fan of the party, because they weren't a fan of her. Later, he was sent to prison, drafted to war, and then killed in action. So sad!
Once upon a time, doctors had very different attitudes about tobacco. Countless vintage ads show medical professionals recommending cigarettes and endorsing brands. Today, we certainly know better. These products cause cancer, and they are certainly not available to buy at hospitals. But once upon a time, you could stock up right from your hospital bed! This old photo shows nurses selling all sorts of smoking options as part of their job.
The recovering man is delighted to receive such service while he's resting. It's not like he can get up and go to the convenience store. He's too sick to get his smokes!
We take electric automation all around us for granted, these days. How often do we think about how a stoplight works? Well, traffic wasn't always so smooth, without human intervention. This man is manually signaling to drivers in 1922. At the beginning of car culture, not many people even had wheels. But as time went on, more and more accidents began to happen. Obviously, the road needed to be more organized.
To communicate, he pulls a lever for stop and go orders. This helped avoid collisions with people, cars, and buildings. Drivers saw wisdom in the innovation. Thanks, traffic stop operator!
America is a diverse place, these days. But once upon a time residents of the nation did not all live, work, and play together. For decades, a policy called segregation governed public spaces. What was the idea? Well, blacks and whites were supposed to use different facilities. Drinking fountains, diners, and bathrooms all counted. And here, we see an example of just what that used to look like before modern reforms.
This photo shows a 1960's bathroom block. We see a white ladies' room, a white men's room, and a mixed room for everyone else labeled 'colored'. None of this exists anymore!
Marilyn Monroe was a phenomenon in her time, and frankly, she still is. A timeless beauty with a quality no can imitate, she was beloved by men and women alike. When Americans were sent off to fight in Korea, Marilyn was asked to visit and provide moral support. Of course, she agreed! Husband Joe DiMaggio was busy with baseball duties, and she thought it would be a great solo trip for a good cause.
While abroad there, she performed in ten shows over four days. This colorized photo shows her arrival in Korea. In contrast with the army helicopter, her glam is undeniable. Marilyn was one of a kind!
This old photo shows an unknown Mississippi man in 1910. He has been out fishing and caught something notable. What a giant fish! We would also take a photo. He may not have been able to figure out its name, but we have. This is the alligator gar, a modern species with an ancient history. The fish has actually been swimming around for about a hundred million years. And strangely, it has barely changed!
Fossil records of the species show that it really hasn't evolved. The gar often grows to be ten feet long and lives in North American lakes. We know everything used to be much bigger during the time of the dinosaurs. This was probably a small fish, back then!
Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal once said: "Because I'm so big, you have to look at me. I think of myself as a monument. But sometimes I like to feel small." But that's too bad. At 7 foot 1, Shaq isn't going to be able to hide in plain sight. But the troubles he experiences are nothing like the ones of the late Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in history. He wasn't just big. He was a literal giant!
Robert lived a long time ago, but he has been recreated as a wax figure for people to experience just how large the was. This photo shows the contrast: Shaq finally looks small!
Woodstock legend Jimi Hendrix certainly played a lot shows with anti-war musicians. But was he totally against fighting? Once, he explained: "Of course war is horrible, but at present, it's still the only guarantee of peace." And if you're wondering where he got such perspective, take a look at this photo of a young Jimi in uniform in 1961. At age 19, he repeatedly tried to get out of service, ABut he gave in, and eventually joined as an army paratrooper. Was he any good?
They caught him asleep, and other items, he insulted officers. Truthfully, he wasn't cut out for service and received a discharge. We can see now that he was destined for another great mission: Rock and roll, baby!
Today, transportation is diverse and we can choose whatever wheels we want. Whether it's bikes we pedal or motorcycles we vroom, two wheels are a popular choice. There's also the car, the train, the bus, and even a private jet, for fancy folks. Something's missing, though. Could it be this strange contraption, from 1930? It is called the monowheel, and it's actually based on a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci!
British inventor Dr. J. A. Purves thought he was onto something when he built this wild wheel. But for whatever reason, it went out of fashion. We demand they bring it back!
Before modern refrigerators, we suppose people drank lukewarm water all the time. It sounds terrible, to ice snobs like us. But if you were wealthy, you could order big slabs to chill whatever you want. These ladies are bringing that delightful product to the wealthy in lower Manhattan in 1918. They have been tasked to drive around the supply and distribute them to delighted New Yorkers. If you have money to spare, why not buy some nice ice?
Thankfully, fridges are no big deal in our time, even for the very poor. Everyone can store food and make their own ice, on demand. We can't imagine summertime without it!
Earthquakes are a fact of our planet, and there's no getting out of it. Every once in a while, tectonic plates beneath our feet get angry. They shake uncontrollably, and they make quite a mess. If this happens in the middle of nowhere, it doesn't affect us very much. But when it happens near a city, that's another story. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was a wild ride, and many didn't survive. 3,000 people perished!
Not only that, but around 80% of the city was destroyed in just a few minutes. Here, we see a photo of the fault line exposed for miles after the incident. This woman is curious about the crack. We don't blame her!
Yoda once mused: “On many long journeys have I gone. And waited, too, for others to return from journeys of their own. Some return; some are broken; some come back so different only their names remain.” The creator of this character seems to be such a person. He went on a wild journey helping to bring Star Wars to life. Only his name remains as an obscure credit at the end. But shouldn't we know more about him than that?
This is designer Ralph McQuarrie, and he deserves some of the thanks for making those movies memorable. Here he is, and we wonder if he used himself as a model. The resemblence is uncanny!
In 1875, Dutch photographer Francisco Van Camp took the photo that would fascinate thousands for years to come. The woman is so uniquely beautiful, and is only made more so by the fact that so little is known about her identity. Her name is unknown, and she's only been described as "Mestiza Sangley Filipina," a commonly used term to describe people who were both ethnically Chinese and Indigenous to the Philippines.
Historians believe she was wealthy and that her half-opened fan insinuates that she was unmarried. Being such a beauty, we're sure that didn't last long.