These Vintage Photographs Have Captivating Backstories

A picture is worth a thousand words. We’ve all heard that line before, but the pictures shown in this series provide us details about history and the lives of everyday people that are truly mind-blowing. The pictures themselves are truly stellar — but the stories behind them are even more amazing.

It’s always fun to go back into photo albums and remember the way things were. Perhaps these photographs will inspire you to do so today — and who knows? Maybe you’ll find a picture within them that has its own thrilling backstory!

The Rolls Royce

This photograph isn’t so much a vintage one as much as the subject matter is. The man in the photograph is showcasing to us his 1928 Rolls Royce. Even back then, the car looked like something I couldn’t ever hope to afford!

Interestingly enough, the vehicle in this picture isn’t the only “vintage” part of it. The many who is set in the center is 102 years old. What’s more, this is his primary vehicle of choice: he’s been driving the Rolls Royce for 80 years. It’s nice to know that cars like that used to hold up for several decades!

It Wasn’t Over

“WAR IS OVER!” What a lovely sentiment. Except, you didn’t read the fine print, did you? The entire sign, which originally appeared in Times Square, New York City, in 1969, was put up at the height of the Vietnam War. But it wasn’t a declaration of victory — it was a call to peace.

Underneath the big bold lettering are smaller words, which read, “IF YOU WANT IT.” The sign corresponds to a song written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which was an anti-war Christmas ballad. The war itself lasted another six years, with U.S. involvement lasting until 1973.

Liberated From A Death Train

What’s so important about this picture? At first, it appears to be a group of people, mothers and their children mostly, getting off a train. And that’s precisely what it is, if we’re going to get technical. But it’s so much more, too…

These train passengers were actually Jewish prisoners who could have become victims of the Holocaust. Their exit from the train happened toward the end of World War II. They were liberated from the death train that was en route to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Had they not been liberated, it’s highly probably they would have been killed.

Brooklyn’s First Ambulance

This photo in 1873 was taken in Brooklyn, New York. If you look carefully, you’ll see some words on the side of the carriage, which is being drawn by a horse in the front. The words read “Ambulance. Department of Health.” Two men are on the vehicle, one in front and one in the rear.

This is actually a picture of the first ambulance in the borough of Brooklyn. The development certainly made things easier when it came to transporting those with serious injuries or ailments — but I’m also glad I live in the modern age, where a motorized vehicle with flashing lights could transport me, if needed, instead.

Mount Vesuvius

This picture looks like a violent scene from some far-out planet, or perhaps a science fiction movie. Believe it or not, this is a real volcano exploding — Mount Vesuvius, to be exact. Many know about the historic destruction the volcano wrought in 79 A.D. but some are not aware that the volcano has erupted many times after that, including less than 80 years ago.

This volcano last went off in 1944, which destroyed nearby villages, and resulted in more than 60 casualties. Interestingly, Vesuvius is the only active volcano in the entire continent of Europe.

This Crafty Way To Transport Liquor

We already discussed the era of American Prohibition once before. Those transporting or selling liquor illegally had to come up with crafty ways to hide their goods, and this is about as crafty as it can get.

From behind this “lumber” truck, it appears that it’s hauling a number of 2x4s around the city. But as these inspectors have demonstrated, the truck is a fake — the back and sides are made to LOOK like it’s hauling lumber, when in reality the inside is hollow, allowing space to transport booze to and from wherever it needs to go. Very clever, if you ask me!

Boston From Above

This is an interesting photograph of the city of Boston. Prior to this picture being taken, very few were aware of how the city looked high above, other than artist depictions or from drawings of maps. That’s because this is the first known aerial photograph of the city, which was taken in 1860 from a hot air balloon. It’s intriguing to see how the city buildings were set up, no doubt leading toward a “center” area due to some pretty fancy city planning.

The Champ

This picture shows the champion for boxing in the 1960 Rome Olympic games. And who else could it be? That’s Muhammad Ali standing in the top spot. Ali won the gold for the United States that year, in the category of Light heavyweight. The weight class here means that this was pretty early in his career.

In fact, this picture is taken before Ali converted to Islam, which happened in 1961. Up until 1964, Ali was known as Cassius Clay. His history as a boxer is nearly unparalleled, having won 56 bouts, losing only 5 in his professional fighting career.

A Time To Celebrate

This crowd of people is gathering in Times Square, New York City, to take part in a huge celebration. It’s not a big sports win for the city, or a parade of some sorts. This is an image of how people reacted to news of Nazi Germany’s surrender in 1945.

The image showcases how nearly everyone in the country had a stake in this outcome. World War II forced people to make a lot of sacrifices in their lives, and the end of the European theater of the war was monumental. The war would continue in the Pacific, and Japan would surrender a few months later.

Father And Son

After a loved one passes away, looking at photographs can be a dreadful thing — especially the last few ones you’ve taken of them. Moments of happiness that were captured can bring a great amount of pain afterward.

This photograph of John F. Kennedy was taken just days before he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. While some might think it’s a photo of him speaking to a supporter, it’s actually a pic of him talking with his dad, Joe Kennedy, at their Hyannis Port estate in Massachusetts. Neither of the two thought this would be their last interaction with one another.

A Daunting First Day Of School

The first day of school can be a daunting occasion for any child under even the most ordinary of circumstances. Parents fret over the first day outfit, and making sure that all of the school supplies are bought. Children worry, too, especially when they start at a brand new school altogether.

Imagine the fright this young girl and her family must have felt. This is Ruby Bridges, and that’s not a parent escorting her into her first day of classes — it’s a federal agent. Ruby was the first black child to desegregate a school in the state of Louisiana, and the agent was there to ensure the school would allow her to attend.

Give Him A Hand

Two body builders. One is very tall, the other is somewhat short. This is an impressive picture on it’s own, but you might be asking, “what’s it got to do with this list?”

The man standing on the ground you’ve probably never seen before…at least, not without a mask on. That’s David Prowse, a British bodybuilder and character actor. His most famous role came in three separate films, but his voice was dubbed over by another actor. Figure it out yet? He’s the man who played Darth Vader! Pretty bizarre to find out that the guy under the mask and cape was a bodybuilder, isn’t it?

The Chinese Flag

Who doesn’t love a day at the beach? The gentle sounds of waves crashing, the sun giving off warmth as you lay on a towel. This picture looks like this young woman is enjoying her time, too, but there’s a subtle part to it that you may not have realized.

The woman is flying the pre-Communist era flag of China. Why is she doing this? The woman is Asian, but because of anti-Japanese sentiment after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she doesn’t want to be mistaken for being Japanese (she’s Chinese), and thus harassed while enjoying her time on the beach.

A Worldwide Event

As the Cold War started to come to an end, more and more countries started to tear down statues that depicted past Communist leader “heroes.” Frequently, pictures made headlines in Europe of Vladimir Lenin, who established the Communist state in Russia, being toppled.

This picture is interesting in that it shows a young boy at the head of a toppled Lenin statue — and it’s not in Europe. This statue crumbled at the end of the Communist regime in Ethiopia, in May of 1991. Many might not think of how significant the fall of communism really was on a global scale, picturing it as a European or American event only, but pictures like these tell a very different story, one that deserves to be heard as well.

Mr. Roboto

This handsome fellow is named Eric. Although he looks like a character out of the film The Wizard of Oz, Eric is not a tin man — in fact, he’s not much of a man at all.

Eric is the first British robot ever built. He was constructed in 1928 (11 years before The Wizard of Oz was released in theaters). We might tent to look at this image now and smile, but robot technology (not to mention, sci-fi thrillers) not have many of us wary of robot technology, especially where AI might be involved. Fortunately, Eric didn’t have much artificial intelligence to speak of!

Protests With Flowers

This is a famous image that many may recall from protesters during the Vietnam War era, but if you’ve never seen it before, it’s truly breathtaking. Military police were blocking access to the Pentagon by protesters, armed to the teeth while doing so (it is the top military building in the country, after all, representing all five branches of the armed forces). Protesters wouldn’t be dismayed, however.

Walking directly up to the line of MPs, protesters began taking flowers out, and placing them at the end of the barrel of their guns. A pretty brazen move! But it made for this picture, which made an impact on society at the time.

Let’s Go Out For A Stroll

If you’re just taking casual glances of these pictures, stop that right away — you may miss some pretty important details. This picture here looks innocent enough, if you don’t take a closer look at it: a mother pushing her baby’s stroller on the sidewalk. Nothing strange about that.

The mother, however, is wearing a gas mask. The baby is encased in a hardened version of a stroller, which is supposedly going to protect it from an air raid and possible chemical attacks. This is a prototype for a means of protecting babies from bomb attacks during World War II. See, paying attention to the details really does pay off — and shows us some creepy history, too.

Having Lunch With The Guys

Today, we might take a look at this image and wonder whether the picture was photoshopped or altered in a way to make it appear as though these workers were really this high above the New York City skyling. But we don’t have to wonder: this is a real photograph, captured before such technologies existed.

This was a common occurrence among the builders of the city’s tallest skyscrapers. You can’t exactly take a long trip back down just to get your lunch, so bring your lunch up with you, and enjoy a snack…hundreds of feet up in the air. Yeah, no thanks…

She-Boom She-Boom

What is so interesting about this picture? To the casual observer, we see a female dancer, in ballet garb (down to her shoes), striking what appears to be a dance pose in the desert. Above her is a small cloud, which many may think is no big deal.

In reality, the cloud here is the star of the picture, and not the dancer. The photograph was taken in the Nevada desert during a nuclear arms test. That cloud? That’s the after-effect of the test, which means it’s not just an ordinary collection of airdrops — it’s a full-on mushroom cloud.

War Is Hell

This captivating image came about during the Vietnam War. Millions served in that war, and many were part of terrible, brutal battles that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths on the American side. To say that the experience created a lasting impression on these soldiers is an understatement.

This young soldier wrote on his helmet “War is Hell.” That was a common phrase among many who took part in the war, and the expression perfectly summed up the situation many felt they were a part of. The fact that the soldier has young features, too, hit home for those who saw the image…these were our country’s young people, being sent off to fight in a war that many opposed.

Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square protests in China have long been noted as an event where something that was meant to be inspirational took a turn for the worse. Students protesting in favor of democratic reforms in 1989 were brutally attacked by the government, with several killed and more imprisoned. The Tiananmen Square Massacre, as it would later be known, was later deemed by Chinese officials to have been the “correct” course of action, a characterization that some might heavily question, given the disproportionate amount of violence that was used to quell a protest.

The image of the man standing in front of the tank was taken the day after the massacre. Video of the same image shows the man refusing to step aside — as the tank tries to go around him, he just moves in front of it again. The identity of the man, who became a symbol of resistance to authoritarian regimes, remains a mystery.

Cow Shoes

In the last slide, we saw a woman wearing ballet shoes. The shoes in this picture, however, aren’t used for dancing. There are small wood planks attached to this person’s footwear, but for what reason?

Prohibition provides the answer. The shoes (called “cow shoes”) belong to a man who runs a moonshine operation. These fancy kicks were worn by moonshiners for a very important reason: the didn’t leave footprints (at least human-looking ones) for people to follow. As most moonshine operations took place in wooded areas, keeping the locations a secret was an important thing to do, and these shoes helped in a big way.

The Famous Kiss

The image of the sailor kissing the nurse on August 14, 1945 — the official end of World War II — is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It’s seen as an expression of jubilation between the two subjects of the photograph, who are reveling in the announcement of the end of the war. Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took the picture in New York City’s Time Square.

Eisenstaedt famously advocated trying to get a deeper connection with the subjects of his photos, rather than just viewing it as a hobby or a job where you take pictures. “It’s more important to click with people than to click the shutter,” he said.

Child Labor Laws

It’s hard to imagine now, but young children were often forced to take menial jobs in factories or other places where their small hands were useful for helping produce products. It took a long time for child labor laws to go into effect, but the movement to protect children from brutal hardships of work at a young age was helped by images like this one, which led to more public outcry over the matter.

This image, taken by photographer Lewis Hine, shows a child laborer working on a cotton spinning machine. Her loneliness is highlighted by the fact that the only other person in the image, an adult woman, is seen several yards away from her.

A Famous Reunion

Reunions between family members are an emotional thing. When it involves family who serve in the armed forces, it’s even more so — the safety of these soldiers is never guaranteed, and so when they get back home, the reunion is all-the-more celebrated.

This picture from the Vietnam War era shows Lt. Col. Robert Stirm returning to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. Greeting him as he arrives is his family, who are all smiles, rushing to him to embrace Stirm as soon as they first see him. The picture went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and is considered a famous photo that was shot from the era.

Sharing Your Baby Pics

We take for granted these days the fact that we can send messages instantaneously to each other using our smart phone devices. We can speak, text, and even share images or video with one another. This, of course, wasn’t always the case, but the image above was the precursor to what we have now.

The image above is Phillipe Kahn’s baby, who was born in 1997. The software engineer found a way to send images over his cell phone at the time, and did so to share the news of his family’s new arrival with 2,000 people. Now that’s a real “proud dad” moment.

Desegregation

We’ve already detailed one image that showed how desegregating schools led to an officer having to escort a little girl to her first day of classes. In this image, we see the visceral hatred that was in the hearts of some when desegregation became the law of the land.

Elizabeth Eckford is the young black teen pictured here, on her way to her first day of classes at a desegregated school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Eckford was part of the Little Rock Nine, a group of students who the school attempted to deny access to at the time. The angry faces in the background serve to showcase the harassment Eckford and her peers faced when they were merely trying to get an education.

A Mountain Of Skulls

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This image might be the stuff nightmares are made out of. It’s hard to see it without zooming in, but close inspection of this picture leaves no doubt in the viewer’s eyes: this is a mound of skulls. Bison skulls, to be precise, but to be honest the image is still creepy to me nonetheless.

In the 1800s, bison were hunted to near-extinction. Traders killed them for their hides, which were in high demand, but sometimes people just shot them for sport, leaving many of the animal’s body parts behind to decay. Oddly enough, a purpose was later discovered for use of their bones as fertilizer, which is what this image is all about.

1972 Olympics

This photograph is disturbing on its own, even if you don’t know anything about it. A masked man appears on a balcony, looking ominously at his surroundings. If you lack knowledge on the context behind this picture, you’d be forgiven for assuming the worst. Unfortunately, your worst fears are a reality.

This is a picture from the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany. The man is part of a group of terrorists from a Palestinian organization called Black September, which took 11 members of the Jewish team hostage in their hotel suite. In the end, all 11 team members were murdered, along with a police officer, before law enforcement could intervene.

The Kent State Shooting

Many students protested the U.S. presence in Vietnam during the war. The United States involved itself in the conflict from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, which resulted in tens of thousands of American soldiers killed. Many disagreed with the rationale for going to war, while others hated seeing what the war was doing to those who served.

At a May 4, 1970, protest at Kent State University in Ohio, demonstrations ended in a deadly way when members of the National Guard shot and killed four students, wounding nine others. The shooting was just 13 seconds long. This picture demonstrates the frustrations felt by millions of Americans that day when they turned their television sets on to watch the evening news…

On Cloud Nine (Or Higher)

Take a look at this photograph. Are these women cheering for a birthday celebration? For a sports event? No — the story behind their revelry is even more telling, as they’re showcasing relief, not necessarily celebration.

These two are wives of Apollo 8 astronauts. The picture taken at this precise moment shows their reaction to hearing their husbands’ voices for the first time since entering orbit. They’re jubilant not just because they’re husbands are successful, but primarily because they know they’re now safe.

Bush Finds Out About 9/11 Attacks

The image of a staffer whispering something into the ear of a president isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Sometimes they’re providing advice, other times it’s breaking news coverage. In this picture, it’s former President George W. Bush — and his aide is telling him about the attacks of September 11, 2001, as they were happening.

At the time, Bush was doing a reading for kindergartners at a Florida elementary school. Rather than get up and startle the children, Bush remained for the duration of the reading, and left the room afterward. He addressed the nation later on that evening, from the White House, after spending several hours in the air being briefed on the situation on Air Force One.

Rosa Parks

This is a mugshot of Rosa Parks, a Civil Rights pioneer and leader who is famous for refusing to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The action of civil disobedience led to Parks being arrested and charged for the crime of not giving up her seat to a white person who boarded the bus.

The small act of defiance resulted in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. From there, the Civil Rights Movement, many say, really started to take off, although in truth it had been in motion for several years before. Parks’ actions created a national dialogue that was sorely needed at the time.

Kennedy’s Funeral

The assassination of John F. Kennedy resulted in an entire nation of mourning. The young president, the symbol of a change in society for many in the nation, had died three days prior to this picture, which was taken at his funeral in late November of 1963.

Kennedy’s wife, Jackie Kennedy, stands dressed in all black, wearing a veil. Two of their children stand at both sides of her, with her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy there, too. At the bottom of the photo, John F. Kennedy Jr. (“John-John”) looks on at his father’s burial, holding his hand up and giving a salute to his departed father.

The O.J. Simpson Trial

The trial of O.J. Simpson was deemed “the Trial of the Century” by several media outlets in the mid 1990s. The former star football player can be seen in this picture trying on gloves from the alleged assailant. After struggling to put the gloves on, Simpson describes how they do not fit his own hands.

The trial ended in controversy, with the jury finding Simpson “not guilty.” Public opinion on the trial was markedly different, however, with Americans heavily divided on the subject, many believing he was guilty for killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

The Challenger

Some images are seared into our heads that when we see them, we’re immediately aware of what they are. But as we start to age, a new generation is starting to just become aware of these historical events. The image in this slide looks like a collision of some sort, or perhaps a missile test gone wrong. In reality, it’s an explosion of a space shuttle.

The Challenger space shuttle exploded just minutes after take-off on January 28, 1986, after it departed Kennedy Space Center in Florida. All seven members of the crew died in the disaster, which was broadcast on live television. It was a hearbreaking moment for Americans across the country.

Heading Out To Battle

This picture shows what appears to be a soldier posing in front of a tank. The man, wearing his gear and goggles on his head, is smiling, but this isn’t really a happy picture.

This was taken in World War II, in 1944. The photographic pose took place just hours before the Battle of the Bulge, which was the last major German offensive maneuver of the war. It was an immensely deadly battle — some estimates say almost 21,000 Allied troops died in the fight, with another 65,000 wounded or lost during the action. The Axis powers suffered great losses as well, with around 15,000 Germans being killed.

Christmas During The War

Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Just a few soldiers enjoying a rousing game of soccer, right? That’s what many people might think of the image in this slide, but there’s actually more to the story here. These soldiers are actually enemies of one another, in the middle of World War I, taking a break from shooting each other to play a game.

It sounds incredibly odd, but was a Christmas Truce in the first winter of the war, where both Axis and Allied powers agreed to a ceasefire on Christmas day. In addition to playing games like soccer and chess with one another, soldiers from opposing sides even exchanged gifts.

Laika The First Dog In Space

Laika, the first dog in space, in the sputnik 2 capsule. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Laika, the first dog in space, in the sputnik 2 capsule. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

To the unsuspecting eye, this dog looks like they’re about to be part of a science experiment. Well, that’s somewhat true: this is Laika, the first living animal to be put into outer space. She was sent up in a capsule on November 3, 1957, by the Soviet Union.

The happy face that Laika gives here doesn’t have a happy ending, unfortunately: the test was only to see if a living animal could successfully be sent into space. A return flight was never part of the plan. Scientists believe Laika died in her capsule, due to overheating, just a few hours after liftoff.

Mussolini’s Propaganda

ITALY – CIRCA 1939: World War II. Mask of Mussolini on the facade of a building. (Photo by Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
ITALY – CIRCA 1939: World War II. Mask of Mussolini on the facade of a building. (Photo by Albert Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

This looks like something from a movie set based on George Orwell’s book “1984,” but this is the real-deal fascism on display. A giant face looks down on Italians, surrounded by the words “Si,” which is Italian for “Yes.” This was the campaign headquarters for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

While Mussolini rarely gets as much mention as does Adolf Hitler, he was an instrumental part of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Indeed, Hitler borrowed many of his platforms and ideas. This image is from Mussolini’s 1934 campaign, which he dubioiusly “won” with 99.85 percent of the vote.