Epic Unearthed Historical Photos That Defy Belief
By Sarah Norman | October 21, 2023
Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King Jr. in background, 1955.
These photographs of pop culture and historic events of the past will give you a wave of nostalgia and a look into our history. Our present is built on a foundation of the past, therefore understanding what life was like a decade or a millennium ago is vital to learning what was considered important to people of the past. Knowing our past and how it has impacted our present provides us with a way to anticipate the future.
Mild-mannered and kind, Rosa Parks hardly seemed like the activist type when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, and indeed, Parks was an unlikely social reformer. Yet we know her today as “the first lady of the civil rights movement”. She was willing to fight for injustice and inspire others to follow her lead. Her act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped to galvanize the Civil Rights Era. Together with Martin Luther King, Parks served as an icon of equality. She is shown here with Dr. King in 1955.
The Addams Family, 1965.
Did you know that the popular macabre sitcom of the mid-1960s, The Addams Family, originated as a cartoon in the “New Yorker”? Cartoonist Charles “Chas” Addams was known for his dark and twisted humor. In his cartoons, he created a series of off-beat and wacky characters that he referred to as the Addams Family. These characters, and the weird and spooky situations they encountered, were so well received among the “New Yorker” readers that he was asked to join forces with TV producer David Levy to develop the television series of the same name. Among the creepy characters on the show were Morticia and her husband, Gomez, their children, Wednesday and Pugsley, their butler, Lurch, along with Uncle Fester, Cousin Itt, and Thing.
One of only two completely-original 18th Century Pirate Flags in existence.
Despite was movies and TV show tell us, not all pirate flew a skull and crossbones flag, also known as the Jolly Roger, from the masts of their ships. When Richard Hawkins was kidnapped by pirates in 1724, he told his rescuers that the pirate ship bore a black flag with an image of a skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear and that the pirates called their flag the Jolly Roger. Three years prior, two other pirates, Francis Spriggs and Bartholomew Roberts, both used the term to refer to their flags, but neither of their flags had a skull and cross bones on it. The Barbary pirates were most likely the first to use the traditional pirate flag design, like this one, that we have come to associate with piracy.
Fetching groceries with mom meant dressing the part too, 1940s.
One of the tasks of a 1940s housewife was to sew the family’s clothes. Most homes owned a sewing machine and the housewife learned from girlhood to be an accomplished seamstress. The extreme poverty of the 1930s Great Depression still firmly in the collective memories of the American public, housewives did all they could to reduce, reuse, and recycle. When there was fabric left over from her own dresses, she used the scraps to make diminutive versions of her clothes for her small children. In this photo, we see the result…a mother and daughter in matching dresses, busy doing the family’s grocery shopping.
After the celebration, 1934. Man in top hat and tails clinging to a lamp post in the early morning mist, London.
The November 29, 1934, marriage of Prince George, Duke of Kent, to Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, was cause for celebration among the citizens of England. This royal wedding was the first one to be broadcast live on the radio and people all across London gathered to listen to the momentous event. Perhaps the dapper gentleman in this photo joined in the celebration of the Prince and Princess’s wedding by enjoying a few pints at a local tavern before staggering home in the early morning mist. Good thing London has plenty of light post to help him stay upright until he reached his bed.
A Highland Home, Scotland.
As this photograph shows, thatch buildings are a traditional and iconic Scottish roofing material for Highland buildings. In fact, thatch was the very first roofing material in the country and the practice has continued well into the twentieth century. Heather, reed, marram grass, and rye are all used to make the thatch roofs. Scottish builders have used the most diversity of materials and techniques of any other region of Europe. Sadly, thatch roofed buildings are slowly disappearing from the Scottish landscape. They are difficult to maintain and more problematic than modern roofing materials. An effort is underway in Scotland to preserve the remaining thatch roofed structures.
Try it before you buy it! Teens listening to singles at the record store, 1957.
Teenagers love their music! Long before Pandora and Spotify, teens had to purchase the music they wanted in the form of vinyl records. Mindful of the limited disposable income of the 1950s teenager, many record companies started to produce singles, small records with a popular hit song recorded on one side, the A side, and a lesser known song by the same artist on the B side. Most 1950s record stores offered an area of turntables to allow their customers to listen to a single before they purchased it. These teens are taking advantage of that service, with the help of the elderly record store clerk, shown on the left.
Vintage ad, NEC Corp, 1983.
This ad from 1983 pokes fun at the complex process of operating a VCR. First introduced in 1979, the VCR revolutionized home entertainment. It helped to unchain families for the television because it offers a way to record favorite programs and watch them at a later date. In fact, the VCR is responsible for binge-watching that is so common today. But the VCR machines were notoriously complicated and difficult to use. The most common complaint about this new technology was it was definitely not user-friendly. In response to customer complaints, VCR manufacturers began developing more streamlined machines in the early 1980s.
President Theodore Roosevelt riding a Moose across a river, 1908.
If any U.S. president was going to ride a moose across a lake, it would have been Teddy Roosevelt, but, alas, this photo represents one of the earliest political “fake news” reports. When this doctored photo was released to the public, Roosevelt was a third-party candidate running for the presidency for the Progressive Party alongside Republican William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The symbol for the Progressive Party was a Bull Moose so the photography firm of Underwood and Underwood painstakingly cut a photograph of Roosevelt on a horse and glued it to a photo of a moose wadding through a lake. Props to these guys for doing an excellent editing job pre-Photoshop.
First woman jury, Los Angeles circa 1911, LOC.
The first all-female jury to hear a court case was in 1911, a full eight years before women were granted the right to vote. But this court case was unique. The defendant was a newspaper editor named A.A. King and he was being charged with obscenity because he printed an insulting quote from a city councilman in his newspaper, The Watts News. The councilman had apparently said some disparaging remarks to King in person, then King chose to print them. The judge decided that a jury of women would be particularly sensitive to the obscenities charges. It took only 20 minutes for the women to come back with a not guilty verdict.
Prolific British mystery novelist, Agatha Christie, was herself the subject of a mystery when she disappeared for 11 days in 1926. Christie’s car was found crashed on the side of the road but there were no signs of the famous writer. News of her disappearance was the top story in all the newspapers. Eleven days later, a fellow hotel guest recognized her and alerted authorities who then confronted Christie. She claimed to be suffering from amnesia. Did she really bump her head in the car accident and lose her memory? Or was the amnesia claim a cover-up for the real reason for her disappearance? Some speculate that Christie was so distraught over her husband’s affairs that she ran away to contemplate suicide.
A mountain fiddler, North Carolina, circa 1920.
Bluegrass music, like the kind this gentleman is playing, has been popular for decades in the hills of Appalachia. Mountain music, as it was called, blended the musical traditions of Irish, Scottish, and British settlers who sang narrative-style songs and ballads, accompanied by the fiddle. Traditional bluegrass tunes such as “House Carpenter,” “Pretty Polly”, “The Two Sisters”, and “Cumberland Gap” were played at parties and get-togethers all across the south. The term “bluegrass” wasn’t applied to this genre of music until the early 1940s. The term was taken from Kentucky songwriter and mandolin player, Bill Monroe’s back-up band, the Bluegrass Boys.
Frida Kahlo and her fawn, 1939.
Famed Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, was inspired by nature and the culture of her native Mexico, although many of her pieces had a strong autobiographical quality to them. One piece, titled “The Wounded Deer” was painted in 1946 and depicts a folk-art deer, not a real one like this one. Kahlo painted her own face as the deer’s face. The deer is running through the woods but has been fatally wounded by a bunch of arrows. The deer is desperately trying to flee the menacing forest, but knows it will not make it. Kahlo painted this piece to represent her frustration after having spine surgery in New York in an attempt to alleviate some of her chronic pain from injuries she received in a car accident.
Roosevelt was once shot while giving a speech. He finished the speech and then went to the hospital.
Tough as nails, Teddy Roosevelt was preparing to deliver a campaign speech in Milwaukee when a deranged man shot him at close range, aiming at Roosevelt’s heart. The bullet deflected off Roosevelt’s eyeglass case and through the thickly folded papers of his speech that were in his coat pocket, before lodging in the former Rough Rider’s body. Undeterred, Roosevelt delivered his speech. After he was introduced, Roosevelt pulled the blood stained papers from his pocket and told the crowd of onlookers, “You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.” As soon as the speech concluded, Roosevelt was whisked away to the nearest hospital where the bullet was removed from his body.
The Gold Room in the Chateau Fontainebleu located in Seine-et-Marne, France. It is one of over 1500 rooms in the medieval castle.
This remarkable medieval castle has housed such distinguished leaders as Louis VII, Francois I, Henry II and Catherine de Medici, and Napoleon III. One of the largest royal chateaux, this palace is located about 35 miles southeast of Paris. Lavish and ornate don’t begin to describe the Chateau Fountainebleu. The Gold Room is adorned with painting, sculptures, and intricate details. Today, the chateau is a museum and a protected site on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the rooms are open to the public who can tour the palace and stare in awe at the opulence of medieval royalty.
A musician saving his instrument during the Battle of Stalingrad, WWII, 1942-1943.
One of the largest battles between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II, the Battle of Stalingrad started on August 23, 1942 and raged until February 2, 1943. An aerial attack, or Luftwaffe, reduced the city to rubble, then troops marched in to engage the enemy and civilians alike in close-quarter combat. Citizens attempted to flee with the fighting what little of their belongings remained but their efforts were often stymied by more skirmishes. The musician photographed in this picture was attempting to evacuate Stalingrad with his most prized possession…his instrument…before he was caught up in more conflicts.
Cannabis Alcohol from the early 1900s.
They were ahead of the curve! The Lloyd Brothers Pharmacy of Cincinnati, Ohio, made and sold bottles of their own medicinal elixirs in the early 1900s. Most of the ingredients in their products were botanicals and the benefits were unproven at best. Among the snake oil medicine they offered to their customers was a tonic made of cannabis oils and alcohol. Cannabis, or hemp, has been used medicinally as far back as 1500 BC. Used in patent medicine, pharmacists claimed cannabis could cure a cough, relieve pain, help with constipation, and even cure ingrown toenails.
Gentlemen's Cafe of the Waldorf Astoria hotel NYC. 1903.
No, this isn’t the type of Gentlemen’s Club with a stripper pole, barely-dressed women, and lots of one dollar bills. The Gentlemen’s Café at New York City’s opulent Waldorf Astoria Hotel was a private lounge and restaurant for the wealthy, upper-class men of the city to gather and discuss men things without those pesky women butting in. If it sounds sexist and elitist to you, it is because it was. But in 1903, gentlemen’s clubs were a way for the male-dominated, uber-rich movers and shakers to connect with each other. In fact, some of the biggest business deals of the time were negotiated in stately, masculine-designed clubs like this one.
Burial at sea for the officers and men of the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
During World War II, the USS Intrepid, commissioned in 1943, was based in the Pacific Theatre and saw battle in several campaigns, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in which the ship lost several crew members. Those crew members received a burial at sea, as shown here. The USS Intrepid was used in the Viet Nam war as well. The ship has a reputation for bad luck, having been hit by one torpedo and four Japanese kamikaze planes. She earned the nickname “Decrepit.” When the ship was decommissioned in 1974, it was docked in New York City and, in 1982, it became a museum and popular tourist site, the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum.
A Sami family in Norway, 1890-1900.
No, this isn’t a Native American tribe posing outside their tepees. It is a photograph of the Sami people, an indigenous group of people who inhabit Norway and Sweden and parts of Finland. It is the Sami people that the English know as Lapps or Laplanders. The Sami are reindeer and sheep herders, fishermen, and trappers that have a quasi-nomadic lifestyle in the north. For centuries, the Sami people were subjected to discrimination and multiple attempts to remove them from their ancestral lands. But in 1990, Norway official recognized the Sami as a indigenous group and awarded them their due benefits.
A snapshot of historical fashion, 1930s.
There may have been a Great Depression going on, but the women of the 1930s still wanted to look and feel as glamorous as Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford and all the other leading ladies they saw on the big screen. One way to update one’s look without have to spend a lot of money was by adding an elegant accessory, like white satin gloves and a stylish hat. Most well-to-do ladies of the thirties wore gloves when they were out in public, like this trio here. During the day, shorter, white gloves were the norm, but for evening events, white or black gloves that were elbow length or longer gave their attire a dash of panache.
Russian author Leo Tolstoy, 1897.
One of the greatest novelists of all time, Leo Tolstoy is, perhaps, best known for his works “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. In the 1870s, Tolstoy experienced a moral awakening, which he wrote about in “A Confession”, a 1882 non-fiction piece. He became a Christian anarchist and a pacifist and wrote about nonviolent resistance in his works, including the 1894 “The Kingdom of God is Within You”. This book, and Tolstoy’s other pacifist essays and books, inspired 20th century activists, most notably Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, who sought to emulate Tolstoy’s teachings.
In 1974, 22-year-old Daniel Sorine took a photo of two mime artists performing in New York’s Central Park. In 2013, Daniel was looking through his negatives when he realized one of the mimes was Robin Williams.
Robin Williams was a mime? Yep! Before he hit it big in television and movies, the funny man worked as a mime in New York’s Central Park. Photographer Daniel Sorine snapped a series of pics of Central Park mimes in 1974, but he didn’t realize that one of them would become one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men. In fact, it took Sorine 35 years to discover that he photographed Williams. Sorine said, “Central Park is a photographer’s paradise…what attracted me to Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity.”
Cotton pickers receiving sixty cents a day, Arkansas, 1935.
Cotton was an important economic crop in the Southern states. Before the wide spread used of cotton picking machines, the cotton had to be harvested by hand. The back-breaking work, in the hot summer sun, was often the only work available to poor African-Americans. A hundred years ago, cotton farmers relied on slave labor to pick their cotton, but when slavery was abolished, the farmers were forced to pay laborers to do the work. The working conditions were poor, as were the wages. This couple in 1935 Arkansas earned only 60-cents per day for a full day’s work in the fields.
Tawhiao, the second Maori King, between 1868 and 1898.
In the 1850s, there was a push among New Zealand’s Maori Tribes to establish political roles akin to those of the British colonists. This was done as a means of preserving the Maori culture in the face of colonization. The Maori Tribes selected a king, but the role had essentially no power and place within the New Zealand government. Tawhiao, the second Maori King, succeeded Potatau upon his death in 1860, and ruled for 34 years. This was a time of change and upheaval for the Maori people as colonization of New Zealand and the surrounding islands continues, and the British brought the industrial revolution with them.
Johnny Cash singing to Oscar the Grouch on the set of Sesame Street, 1973.
Public television’s revolutionary children’s program, “Sesame Street” introduced the world to the magical puppet creations of Jim Henson, who developed a cast of memorable muppets that regularly interacted with the human actors and guest stars. One such guest star, Johnny Cash, sang a duet with one of the show’s favorite curmudgeon, Oscar the Grouch, who lived in a trash can. Oscar and Cash sang a duet that was penned by Cash specifically for “Sesame Street”. That tune, called “Nasty Dan”, was the perfect complement to Oscar the Grouch’s cranky demeanor.
A young Teddy Roosevelt.
Long before his foray into politics, Teddy Roosevelt earned a reputation as an avid outdoorsman, hunter, and fisherman. As a young child, Roosevelt suffered from asthma that often kept him confined to the house, but after he outgrew that, he embraced the outdoor life. His time in the wilderness gave him a tremendous appreciation for the vast natural beauty and resources in the United States. As president, he made it his mission to protect the nature wonders. Often called the conservationist president, Roosevelt established the National Parks Service that set aside unique and significant places, protecting them from development and ensuring that generations of visitors can experience America the beautiful.