40 Rare Photographs Reveal What Life Was Really Like In The Past

As technology has advanced over the years, so too has our ability to record history in more accurate and thorough ways. But over the millennia, we’ve had to rely on everything from cave paintings to fossils for evidence of what came before. Thankfully, the introduction of the camera made it much easier to get a glimpse into what life was like in the past. And these black-and-white photographs – from the Great Depression to the fall of the Berlin Wall – help us to do just that.

40. The first selfie

Believe it or not, the concept of a selfie wasn’t born with camera phones. In fact, the photographic self-portrait has been around almost as long as photography itself. That’s because savvy snappers would often sit as their own model while experimenting with their equipment. Take Robert Cornelius, who produced what’s thought to be the first ever selfie in 1839. The budding photographer sat in front of an uncapped lens for a full minute to achieve the shot.

39. The first photographic hoax

Louis Daguerre may be remembered as the founding father of photography, but another pioneer of the technology claimed to have invented it first. Unfortunately, Hippolyte Bayard was pipped to the post after a friend of Daguerre persuaded him to delay unveiling his printing process. To protest this perceived slight, Bayard created the first photographic hoax in 1840. The resulting picture seemingly shows Bayard having drowned himself. In reality, he was alive and well.

38. The first news photograph

Before 1847 the masses received their news solely via the written word. But that year the Daguerrotype process – conceived by photography pioneer Louis Daguerre – changed everything. Indeed, this image of French authorities arresting a man is believed to be the first newsworthy photograph ever captured. Alas, the identity of the photojournalist behind the shutter has been lost to the mists of time.

37. The oldest surviving aerial photo


The first ever photo taken from the air has been lost to history. Fortunately, two years after Gaspard-Félix Tournachon snapped his aerial image of Paris, James Black took his camera high above Boston. The resulting photograph, shot from a hot air balloon in 1860 – a full four decades before the Wright brothers invented flight – now resides in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

36. The oldest surviving photo of a U.S. President

William Henry Harrison’s 1841 portrait, like so many of history’s firsts, is long gone. For the oldest surviving photo of a U.S. President, then, we have to turn to John Quincy Adams. Yes, the sixth POTUS, who served from 1825 to 1829, sat for two images in 1843. It’s not known which was captured first, but Adams raucously described one of them as “hideous” in his diary.

35. The first color photograph


It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Thomas Sutton’s work on modern photography. Not only did the Englishman develop the first wide-angle lens, he also produced the first color photograph. Sutton worked with James Clerk Maxwell, a theoretical physicist, to shoot a tartan ribbon through blue, green and red filters. The talented duo then combined their three negatives into a single image, creating the foundation of color photography.

34. The first photo of a nuclear explosion

Footage of the July 1945 test of the atomic bomb’s effectiveness has not withstood the test of time. What has lasted, though, is a simple still, snapped by scientist and amateur photographer Jack Aeby. So the story goes, Aeby was permitted to take his camera to the site to record the group’s activities – and ended up recording the explosion. As he later recalled, “It was there, so I shot it.” The resulting image was then used by scientists to determine the true yield of the bomb.

33. The first photo of Earth taken from space


On October 24, 1946 a 35mm camera captured the first image of Earth from space – but there was nobody behind the shutter. Instead, the device was programmed to take photos every one and a half seconds. That’s because it was aboard a German-made V2 rocket, some 65 miles above the surface of the planet. The film was then dropped to the ground in a steel canister, ready to be developed.

32. The first digital photo

While digital cameras wouldn’t debut until the mid-1970s, the first digital photo was actually produced almost 20 years prior. Indeed, in 1957 Russell Kirsch scanned an image of his infant son into his computer, creating a 176×176 pixel picture. That may sound like a painfully low resolution, but it was all the computer could manage.

31. The first photo of the Earth from the Moon


Three years before man set foot on the Moon, NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I gave a glimpse at the view that awaited those audacious astronauts. Yes, on its 16th orbit, the spacecraft captured an image of our planet from the perspective of the lunar body. It then transmitted the photograph back to NASA’s tracking station in Spain, providing humanity with an historic first.

30. The oldest surviving photo of lightning

Thomas Martin Easterly may be responsible for taking the first ever photograph of lightning in 1847. However, his original work has unfortunately been lost in the decades since. For the oldest surviving image of lightning, then, we must look to William Jennings. The photographer set out to prove that the phenomenon was not the simple zig-zag shape that artists pictured. And while it took him over a year, he eventually captured lightning’s volatile branching form in 1882.

29. The first photo taken on Mars


On July 20, 1976 NASA’s Viking 1 touched down on the surface of Mars. And just moments later, the spacecraft captured the first ever photo taken on the red planet. Ironically, its camera could only shoot in black and white, but the resulting image nevertheless represents an incredible moment in human history.

28. The first photo of a tornado

Until the end of the 19th century, all pictorial evidence of tornados came in the form of drawings. However, in 1884 fruit farmer and enthusiast photographer A.A. Adams witnessed a slow-moving cyclone eke through Anderson County in Kansas. Its sluggish pace allowed him time to set up his box camera only 14 miles away – and capture the first ever photo of the freak weather phenomenon.

27. The first underwater portrait


It seemingly took less than a century for regular photography to grow stale in France. By the end of the 1800s, entrepreneurial shutterbugs had already begun taking their practice to strange new places. For instance, Louis Boutan, combined his photography and diving talents to shoot this underwater portrait of oceanographer Emil Racovitza. Even more astonishingly, it’s likely Boutan used his homemade sub-surface flash photography rig to illuminate his subject.

26. The first powered flight

The Wright brothers weren’t just aviation pioneers: they were also keen cameramen. By the time they made their first ever powered flight in 1903, they were ready to shoot it on film. Using one of the best cameras available at the time, they captured historic images that returned every detail of their plane’s first sustained flight across the sand dunes of North Carolina.

25. The Steam Man


Described by The New York Express as the “eighth wonder of the world,” Zadoc Dederick’s Steam Man captured the imaginations of New Yorkers when it arrived on Broadway in 1868. And it’s likely the 22-year-old inventor’s machine would be equally prized by modern steampunk enthusiasts. You see, Dederick’s fantastical contraption of a man pulling a four-person carriage was powered solely by steam.

24. The President’s dog

This presidential pooch belonged to none other than Abraham Lincoln. But when the POTUS took office, he feared the trip from Illinois would prove too stressful for poor Fido. Instead, he left the dog in the care of his friends – along with the pampered pup’s favorite sofa, and a list of strict rules on how he should be treated.

23. The first “Miss America”


In 1921 Margaret Gorman swept through the crowds of Atlantic City’s boardwalk to win the “Inter-City Beauty Contest.” The precocious 16-year-old had already earned the title of “Miss Washington, D.C.” And her accolades that year would see her crowned as the inaugural “Miss America” in 1922 – an honor she swiftly lost to “Miss Columbus,” Mary Katherine Campbell.

22. The first flower to bloom in space

In November 2015 astronauts aboard the International Space Station began the tricky task of growing flowers in space. The experiment was initiated to help scientists study the growth of plants in microgravity, and for astronauts to become accustomed with a process required for deep space missions. The zinnias had a rocky start, but by January 2016, they showed the first signs of flowering.

21. The first photo taken on Venus


Venus may be blisteringly hot, but in the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union managed to land satellites on its surface. And while none of them lasted long in the nearly 900-degrees Fahrenheit heat, they did transmit some astonishing images. The first, Venera 9, touched down on October 22, 1975, withstanding the planet’s intense atmospheric pressure to capture a truly remarkable photograph.

20. Princess Elizabeth inspecting the Women’s Royal Army Corps, 1949

Before she was queen, Elizabeth II played an active role as princess. In fact, she even served in the military in World War II as a truck mechanic. Here, she inspects a guard of honor at a Royal Agricultural Society show, although she hasn’t yet realized that one woman has fainted – no doubt thanks to everyone else maintaining their posture.

19. Moonshiners’ cow shoes, 1924


In the days of prohibition, the alcohol trade ironically flourished – as did moonshine, the colloquial term for illegally distilled spirits. Due to the blanket ban on booze in the U.S., however, “moonshiners” operated at night, and had to hide their tracks. One way they did so was with “cow shoes,” designed to disguise their footprints.

18. A game of human chess in Leningrad, 1924

Chess was immensely popular in the Soviet Union – in fact, it even became a national pastime. Bolstered by its favor among the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin, a Soviet School of Chess was founded after the Second World War. Practicing chess as a sport rather than an art, its members went on to win all manner of international tournaments.

17. A London bookshop in the aftermath of an air raid, 1940


While there’s a chance this particular photograph may have been posed deliberately, it’s still highly revealing of life during wartime. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the boy reading among the ruins and rubble speaks to the struggles of a citizenry attempting to live normally through what were undoubtedly abnormal times. And the icing on the cake? He’s reading The History of London.

16. Bread being delivered during the Irish Civil War, 1920s

Nowadays, “handmade” goods are considered artisan, but back in the early 20th century, the reverse was true. Indeed, as this photo proves, “machine made bread” was something worth advertising, because it meant buying it at a store rather than making it at home. Thus, being able to afford manufactured goods was the sign of a well-off household.

15. Roller skate salesman, 1961


If these roller skates look strange to you, it’s probably because they’re motorized. And rather than being fueled by batteries or electricity as they likely would be today, these skates are propelled by a tank full of gasoline carried on your back. It hardly sounds like the safest invention around, particularly as this photo was taken in dry California.

14. Escape from East Berlin, 1963

Just two years after the Berlin Wall went up, 20-year-old Heinz Meixner made a daring dash into West Berlin using an Austin-Healey Sprite Mark II. Having removed the windshield to ensure it would fit under the gate, Meixner then raced over the border before the guards could figure out what was happening, bringing his future wife and mother-in-law with him.

13. The last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, 1900s


While the U.S. banned the slave trade in 1807, it wasn’t until 1935 that the last known survivor, Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, passed away. That’s because Lewis was actually smuggled into the country illegally from Togo, West Africa in 1959. Fortunately, he managed to gain his freedom after just a few years and lived to the ripe old age of 94 as a free man.

12. Celebrating the end of prohibition, 1933

Considering how prolific the illegal liquor trade was in the U.S. throughout prohibition, this kind of scene probably wasn’t alien to most people – but it was the first time in 13 years that it had been seen legally. And despite the boot and barrel-sized drinks being consumed here, prohibition actually did reduce overall alcohol consumption rates in the U.S., at least until the 1940s.


11. A family divided by the Berlin Wall, 1961

The Berlin Wall didn’t just separate communities and friends – it also separated families. In one well-known case, a mother was separated from her newborn son for the first five years of his life. And in this picture, parents in West Berlin are literally lifting their children up to show them to their grandparents, who reside in East Berlin.

10. Dublin’s Guinness Brewery, 1910

While the company that owns Guinness has since bought the land outright, the brewery in this photo famously had a 9,000-year lease for the original site. But despite the immense number of barrels, the world has moved on over the past century. Indeed, Ireland is no longer the largest consumer of Guinness beyond the U.K. In fact, it’s Nigeria, where sales overtook Ireland in 2007.

9. A beggar at the King’s carriage, 1920


Did this lowly peasant know he was waving his cap at the carriage of King George V? Possibly – after all, the monarch’s face would have been on coins, banknotes and in newspapers at the time. But without the blanket media coverage the Royal Family enjoys today, it’s also possible that he would have had no idea.

8. Protests against the hijab, 1979

The Iranian Revolution may have been enormously popular with the people of Iran, but the hijab law introduced in the midst of it in March 1979 was considerably less so, as this throng of protesters proves. The law made the scarf mandatory for women leaving their homes, and despite the mass protest, it’s still in place today.

7. The Wall Street Crash, 1929


If ever a single photograph summed up the disaster that was Black Tuesday – or the Wall Street Crash, October 29, 1929 – this must be it. Indeed, as a janitor sweeps the paper and litter from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, it’s incredible to think what must have happened here only days beforehand – and in the years of the Great Depression that followed.

6. New York smog, 1966

Before Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, pollution in New York City was at an incredible high. In fact, in 1966, a three-day smog set in that claimed the lives of an estimated 168 people. Yes, this picture isn’t just a particularly cloudy or foggy day – that’s a dense layer of smog covering the city.

5. Wedding bands of Holocaust victims, 1945


It’s often hard to grasp the monumental scale of the Holocaust. Indeed, the horrific death toll is almost too large to be tangible for most of us. But photos such as the above, of a box of hundreds of wedding bands, shed some perspective on the number. And it’s both harrowing and tragic to think of all the lost history behind their owners.

4. Celebrating Stalin’s death, 1953

Joseph Stalin’s legacy is one of bloodshed and repression, so it’s little surprise that people were happy to celebrate his passing – such as at this restaurant in Washington, D.C. In fact, those celebrations even extended to certain pockets of anti-Soviet movements within the U.S.S.R. Borsht, in case you’re wondering, is a traditional eastern European dish that originated in Ukraine.

3. Atomic test, 1955


Imagine going about your day as normal, only to look up and see a mushroom cloud rising over the horizon. That was the reality that faced the people of Las Vegas in the 1950s, as the U.S. carried out atomic tests in the Nevada desert, 65 miles away from the city. Unsurprisingly, the clouds soon began drawing in tourists, despite the seismic effects of the tests.

2. African-American voters casting ballots, 1963

Despite the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement by 1963 – and being just two years away from the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 – many white police officers still used intimidation tactics to dissuade African-Americans from voting. Here, officers photograph voters in Mississippi to punish them later, while other techniques included arrests on false charges and discriminatory literacy tests.

1. African-Americans queuing outside a relief station, 1937


If a picture speaks a thousand words, this one must speak millions. Indeed, the disparity between the glum expressions on the faces of those lining up – having been displaced by the 1937 Ohio River flood – and the happy, carefree smiles of those on the billboard behind them is striking. For a picture taken during the Great Depression, the billboard’s caption is an ironic summation.