Vintage Photos That Unlock Shocking History
By Sarah Norman | September 7, 2023
Luritja man demonstrating method of attack with boomerang under cover of a shield, Australia, 1920.
The photos in this collection will show you just how amazing it was in the past. The saying goes, “you have to see it to believe” and that’s exactly what these images prove. Without old photographs, it would be hard for us to believe many of the interesting and out-of-the-ordinary things, people, and events of our past.
One of the indigenous tribes of Australia, the Luritja people, who make their homes in the areas west and south of Alice Springs, are accomplished at hunting with the boomerang. The traditional tool of the Australian people, the boomerang was use in hunting, warfare, and for sport. The flat tool is cleverly designed to spin on an axis when it is thrown in the air and will return to the thrower, as this Luritja man demonstrated for the camera in 1920. Today, the Luritja people, the third largest of Australia’s indigenous tribes, primarily use the boomerang for entertainment.
A 140-year-old mother with her 5 day old son.
Is this turtle the oldest mom ever? Maybe. This pic was snapped back in 2011 at the Nyiregyhaza Animal Park in Hungary. This mama African spurred tortoise had recently hatched eight little baby tortoises and the photographer was capturing the happy event. He place one of the babies on the mother’s head for the photo shoot. I know what you’re thinking…how could this mama tortoise be 140 years old? Actually, tortoises enjoy one of the longest life spans of any animal on Earth. It is not uncommon for them to live to be 150 years old or more. In several cultures, including Chinese and Indian cultures, the tortoise symbolizes longevity. Just think…when this mama tortoise was born, Ulysses S. Grant was president!
A spiral staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the year 1516. Wow!
Leonardo Divinci was a man of pure genius. Not only was he an amazing painter and sculptor, but he was a progressive-thinking inventor and visionary. This spiral staircase at the Chateau de Chambord is a stunning example of his ability to blend artistry into his invention. Designing a spiral staircase is a lot harder than it appears and requires an advance understanding of geometry and mathematics. Good think DiVinci was on the job. There was no one else more qualified that him to oversee the construction of the marvelous marble beauty. If the perfection and symmetry of the spiral staircase isn’t enough to impress you, the intricately carved banisters and facades should.
A young couple spending an evening in Las Vegas, 1957.
Las Vegas’ Fremont Street was a vibrant tourist attraction in 1957 and remains so to this day. Within a few city blocks of Fremont Street, visitors can see numerous casinos, restaurants, street entertainers, show girls, and wall to wall tourists. Fremont Street is known for its overwhelming display of neon signs, many of which date back to the time when this couple was enjoying a Vegas-style date night. Today, Fremont Street is blocked off to car traffic to visitors are free to safely stroll through the streets. What is missing from the 1957 Fremont Street experience is the ziplining that takes daring visitors on a ride amid the colorful neon lights, high above the crowds of people that flock to Sin City.
American legend Willis Roy Willey
Willie Willey, born Willis Ray Willey in 1884, was a colorful character and folk legend. The story goes that Willey was a sickly child and thought that communing with nature was the cure for his ailments. He moved from Iowa to Washington State and tried to raise wheat on a farm outside Spokane. When his crop failed, he headed for the woods. He became a mountain man, living off the land. His eccentric ways…and clothing optional mantra…made him legendary around Washington State. In his later years, he built himself a camper with parts from Ford, Chevy, and Studebaker. He traveled around in his camper, earning money for food by selling postcards of himself, like the one shown here.
An American woman teaches English boys to dance the Charleston, 1925.
No other song captures the spirit of the Roaring Twenties like the Charleston. Named for the city of Charleston, South Carolina, the dance was made popular by the 1923 song, “The Charleston” that appeared in the Broadway musical, “Runnin’ Wild”, which ran from October 29, 1923, to June 28, 1924. The some was composed by pianist James P. Johnson. The Charleston kicked off a dance craze that lasted from mid-1925 through the end of 1927. Everyone wanted in on the fad, including this group of English school boys. They are trying intently to learn the dance moves from an American flapper visiting London in 1925.
Beach Date At Balboa Beach in 1947.
Balboa Beach, located in Newport Beach, California, became a popular destination in the years after World War II. During that era, the economy was good and people were looking for a way to return to normalcy after the upheaval of war. People were traveling more, thanks to the new affordability of the automobile. That meant that young lovers, like this adorable couple, could go on real dates…to the movies, to the soda shops, and to the beach. In fact, the beach was the happening place. It was where all the cool beach bums hung out.
Bowling Alley Pinsetters.
While bowling, in some form or another, has been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians, its popularity peaked in the early to mid-1900s. Before automated pin setting machines were invented, bowling alleys need another way to set the bowling pins back up after they were knocked down. Bowling alleys hired teenage boys to be pinsetters. Their job was to pick up the toppled bowling pins and put them back in their positions. They also returned the bowling balls to the players. The work was tedious and the hours were terrible…mostly weekend nights. Still, it was a good first job for teen boys. That is, until Gottfried Schmidt patented his mechanical pinsetter in 1941.
Carn Brae Castle, UK, originally built in the 14th century -- still balancing on massive granite boulders.
The 14th century Carn Brae Castle in the United Kingdom is often considered an example of a “folly” castle…a castle that was built not with the intention of being architecturally sound, but was designed with absurd whimsy. In this case, the entire castle was balanced on huge, irregularly-shaped, uncut granite boulders. Visitors often comment that the castle looks like it is melting into the land surrounding it. Carn Brae Castle has undergone several renovations and changes in its use. It has been used as a chapel, a hunting lodge, and most recently, as a restaurant that specialized in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Donald Duck in 1936.
The beloved Disney character, Donald Duck, made his debut in 1934, and just a few years later, he was the popular start of his own comic strip that was read by fans across the world. Donald Duck joins his friend Mickey Mouse as one of the favorite cartoon characters of all time. The character of Donald Duck was created by Dick Lundy for Walt Disney. The fluffy white duck was assigned human qualities and mannerisms, although his voice was a comic blend between a human voice and a duck voice. Following on the heels of Donald’s success, Disney added members of the Duck family tree, including Daisy Duck, Donald’s girlfriend, and his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louis, as well as his uncle, Scrooge McDuck.
Drive-in theater in Iaeger, West Virginia, 1956.
With the wide-spread affordability of the automobile following World War II, the drive-in theatre enjoyed a tremendous spike in popularity. During the 1950s, more than 4,000 drive-in movies popped up across the country. The drive-in movie was often billed as a great family fun experience, but teens and young adults soon discovered that the drive-in was a great place for date night. The privacy of the automobile lent itself well to steamy, teen hormone-induced, backseat make out sessions while parked in the back row.
Economy class flying in 1970.
When airline travel first started, it was geared toward the traveling businessman. After all, airfares were expensive and only business travelers could afford it. But as the 1970s started and airlines regained control over ticket pricing, air travel became more popular for families, as we see in this photograph from 1970. The introduction of the economy class meant more affordability for families, but economy class passengers didn’t give up too many luxuries. Check out that tuxedoed flight attendant service cocktails, coffee, and soda to the delight of the passengers. The seats look roomy, too, even with that center section of seats.
Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen's sandals.
Yep. King Tut wore flip-flops. As a footwear style, flip-flops have been around for a long time. One of the earliest styles of footwear, flip-flops were worn by the ancient Egyptians, as well as the ancient Sumerians, Chinese, and Japanese. These sandals, found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen and likely worn by the boy king, are rather ornate and certainly fit for a king. Decorated with gold and intricate drawings, the sandals may have been worn for ceremonial purposed rather than every day use. They were placed in his tomb because the young pharaoh probably wanted to wear comfortable shoes in the after life.
Gene Kelly on the streets, 1955.
Singer, dancer, and actor, Gene Kelly, starred in MGM musical satire, “It’s Always Fair Weather”, in 1955. The film follows the lives of three former Army buddies, played by Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd, who go their separate ways but promise to meet at a New York bar in ten years to catch up on each other’s lives. In the opening scene of the film, the three best buddies are dancing through the streets of New York, celebrating their freedom from the military. This photo is a screen shop from Gene Kelly’s portion of the dance.
Getting cooled air piped into the car while enjoying a meal at a drive-in restaurant. Houston, Texas, 1957.
Would you like a blast of cold air with your root beer float? Air conditioning in cars was not commonly available until later into the 1960s, but drive-in customers at this Houston restaurant could still dine in comfort. This image was snapped in 1957 and shows a network of large tubes ran down to every car and allowed customers to pipe cool air into their vehicles so they wouldn’t melt while they enjoyed their meal. Carhops, in addition to taking orders and bringing the patrons their food, helped the customers maneuver the air hose into the car windows.
Japanese street vendor, 1930s.
How did he keep everything balance on his cart? This street vendor in Japan during the 1930s is prepared to hock his household wares. Street vendors were the most common way to purchase items that one needed for the home. It was convenient, too. Often the street vendor came to one’s street so all a potential customer had to do was step out of his or her front door and purchase the items needed. This vendor is offering everything from brooms and feather dusters, to woven baskets and bowls. Pulling a hand cart heaped high with merchandise was a tough way to make a living, but this gentleman seems to have mastered all the necessary skills.
Mill Magnus Olsson, 1844-1933, Sweden. He was deaf, mute, and blind, and an expert basket weaver.
Sweden’s version of Helen Keller, Mill Magnus Olsson was born in 1844 and was a healthy, happy child until he contracted scarlet fever when he was six. The illness robbed him of his sight, hearing, and ability to speak. He attended the Manilla Institute of Deaf and Blind where he learned to read and write, despite his disabilities. It was at this school that he learned the art of basket making. He quickly became an expert basket maker, earning awards and praise for his creations. His skills, pleasant demeanor, and his professionalism made him a well-liked and respected man in his community.
November 1939. Mrs. Lawrence Corda, wife of tiff miner, with some of her 800 quarts of food canned. Washington County, Missouri.
That’s an impressive pantry! Before the supermarkets and home meal delivery services, American housewives canned their own food that they raised themselves. All summer long, they worked in the family garden to make sure the produce was growing well, then all late summer and fall, the housewife would can to harvest. In the era before refrigerators and freezers, canning food was the best way to preserve it to later consumption. Pictured here is Mrs. Lawrence Corda and her 800-plus jars of food. This was probably plenty to get her and her husband, a tiff miner, through the winter of 1939-1940.
Saturday afternoon matinee…double feature and cartoons for .25
Remember when movie theatres showed Saturday afternoon double features? For just a quarter, kids like these could have hours of fun, two movies back-to-back, plus a cartoon feature. Long before there was a television set in every home VCR, Red Box, and Netflix, a trip to the movie theatre was the only way to see the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Just like this group of boys, moviegoers would line up around the block to get their tickets.
Scarab bracelet excavated from the Tomb of King Tutankhamen.
Unimagined treasures awaited Howard Carter when he opened the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. In addition to the mummified remains of King Tut himself were the thousands of priceless artifacts that the boy king needed in the afterlife. Among them was this scarab bracelet. The Scarab, also known as the dung beetle, was a symbol of creation for the people of ancient Egypt and was most often associated with the sun-god, Kherpi. The Scarab motif was found on several jewelry items in the burial chamber and were fashioned out of turquoise, malachite, lapis, and carnelian.
Street gang from 1916.
Check out these tough street thugs from 1916! Bet they thought they were bad, hanging out on street corners and wearing their knickerbockers. It if funny that, in 1916, no one would have batted an eye at the gentleman on the left who is holding a gun in public, but it was considered shocking and scandalous for them to be smoking out on the streets where women and children could see them. Oh my, how times have changed.
Taking the "school bus" in West Linn, Oregon, 1904.
No big yellow bus here! Long before the automobile, school children were sometimes bused to school in horse-drawn wagons, like this group of students from West Linn, Oregon, in 1904. Actually, it was considered pretty progressive of a school district to offer any sort of transportation to and from the school. Most of the time, the school children and their families were solely responsible for finding a way to the school house. The majority of children walked to school, but some rode their own horses, donkeys, or mules. Small stables were built behind school houses to shelter the animals while their owners studied in the school.
The High Jump at The Olympic Games, London, 1908.
When we watch Olympic high jump events now, all of the athletes leap the bar backwards, doing a move known as the Fosbury Flop. It is hard to imagine that that high jump move is fairly new in the sport of high jump. Prior to the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City when American high jumper, Dick Fosbury, debuted his revolutionary move, most athletes crossed the bar by using scissor kick maneuver, like this female high jumper is demonstrating at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. The Fosbury Flop allowed athletes to soar to new heights and has become the favorite technique of most high jumpers.
The I-80 freeway in Wyoming, also known as “The Highway to Heaven.”
It is easy to see why this segment of Interstate-80, that runs east-west through Wyoming, has been nicknamed “The Highway to Heaven.” In actuality, there are many scenic spots along the highway, that runs from the east coast of the United Stated to the west coast. Built between 1956 and 1986, the highway starts in Teaneck, New Jersey, and travels all the way to San Francisco, California. In Wyoming, I-80 reaches its peak height at 8,640 feet above sea level at Sherman Summit and crosses the Continental Divide and runs through the Red Desert.
This is what $20 million under a mattress looks like.
You’ve heard those stories about people hiding their money in their mattresses? Bet you’ve never seen what $2 million dollars looks like stashed under a mattress. Two observations…$2 million dollars looks like of lumpy and uncomfortable. And, who could sleep soundly knowing they had that much money beneath them? I don’t know about you, but I would sleep a lot better knowing my money was safely in a bank.
Times Square, NYC, 1967.
Today, New York’s Times Square is jam-packed with people…resident New Yorkers going about their day and tourists flocking to see this iconic Big Apple destination. But it wasn’t quite as bustling in 1967, as this photograph shows. We can still see that split in the road and the neon lights that form the backdrop of everyone’s cliché Times Square kiss scene. In this old photo, pedestrian traffic in Time Square seems minimal. Today, on average 460,000 pedestrians walk through Times Square every day and about 50 million visitors come to the area every year.
To the beach, Holland, 1953.
This mother and daughter are enjoying a beautiful summer day at the beach in 1953. In the decade after the end of World War II, people were enjoying more travel opportunities and experiencing freedoms they never had before. The beach was a popular attraction, as it is today, because it offers a refuge from the heat of the cities, there is plenty of things for do, and it was often free. Families would pack a picnic lunch and a blanket to sit on and they had all they needed for a pleasant family outing.
Tri-Delta sorority sisters, University of Texas, 1944.
Doesn’t look like college life has changed much! The group of sorority girls in this photograph, taken in 1944 at the University of Texas, shows us that college was a time of partying and rebellion, like it can be today. These girls, Tri-Delta sorority sisters, are dressed provocatively, smoking, and drinking. Some are even posed in sexy poses…all this, long before selfies and Instagram and duck lips.
Welts, scars of beauty, pattern the entire back of a Nuba woman in Sudan, 1966.
Much like tattoos and piercings, decorative skin scarring is a widespread practice in many part of the world. In this photograph from 1966, we see the back of a Nuba woman of the Sudan. It is completely covered with scar tissue in a beautiful pattern. The Nuba people learned centuries ago that scar tissue will create a raised bump in the skin. By inflicting small wounds to the flesh, they could manipulate the pattern of scarring to create designs and symbols. Yes, it can be painful, and, yes, it does open up the risk for infection, but these practices are so ingrained in the culture of the Nuba people that they are willing to risk it in order to have their bodied adorned with beautiful scars.
Woman and her dog in her one room house, Texas, 1938.
Following the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s, thousands of people left their farms and moved to the cities in search of work. Housing options were limited but many people rented out single rooms in their homes. This woman in Texas has her entire belongings in one room. She eats, sleeps, cooks, and relaxes all in the same small space. But with her faithful little dog beside her, she is happy and content with her surroundings.