Have you ever clicked on a slide show of iconic photos and wondered what the story behind them was?
Next thing you know:
You’re sliding down the vortex, into the rabbit-hole that is history...
Three hours later, you’re reading about Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary of the Dutch Republic, who was apparently killed and eaten by an angry mob in 1672.
These iconic photos grab our attention for a reason – especially historical images taken long before we were born.
The digital age takes us back in time to find the story behind the pages in our history books.
20 Iconic Photos That Will Have You Rethinking History
We’ve all seen the cheeky sailor kissing the girl on VJ-Day.
And that's not all:
We’ve seen horrifying images of war, death, and famine thanks to over 100 years of photojournalism.
You probably remember studying the big events in school:
- Big wars
- Big crimes
- Big triumphs
But these iconic photos show the little stories you may not know about.
1. Queen Lili’uokalani
Hawaii joined the Union and became a fully fledged state in 1959. But before that, it was a sovereign nation with a long line of royalty of its own.
Didn't know there was a Hawaiian queen?
Queen Lili’uokalani was the last reigning monarch of Hawaii, ascending the throne in 1891.
The end of an era:
The monarchy was overthrown in 1893, the queen finally gave up her throne in prison after being told that her supporters would also be released if she signed the document of abdication.
But not the end of the Queen:
Although denied her crown, Queen Lili’uokalani continued to make public appearances, receiving subjects during her annual birthday celebration.
Honolulu is the biggest city in the world – at least geographically.
No, seriously, here's how:
The state constitution accords Honolulu with every island not assigned to a county. That means Midway, which is 1,500 northwest of Hawaii, belongs to Honolulu...
making the city 1,500 miles long.
2. Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s Lab
Most people know Mark Twain as the author of classics like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer." But Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemons, also had an interest in science.
He even fancied himself a bit of an inventor.
Twain held three patents for his inventions.
He patented his own history trivia game in 1885. Called “Memory Builder,” his invention was inspired by watching his children try to memorize historical dates.
Part of this fun — if you like to call it that — consisted in the memorizing of the accession dates of the thirty-seven personages who had ruled England from the Conqueror down. These little people found it a bitter, hard contract. It was all dates, they all looked alike, and they wouldn't stick.
You’ll find instructions online.
But be warned:
Memory Builder didn’t take off because most people found it too complicated to play.
Want to try his game? Memory Builders online
You can play the online version of Memory Builders and test your knowledge about Mark Twain’s life and career, as well as general American history from 1840 to 1910.
Twain also patented a self-pasting scrapbook...
which was a big hit and earned him $50,000 in 1873.
But Twain was a poor investor. Whoops...
He was forced to file bankruptcy after investing in the Paige typesetter, made obsolete by the Linotype machine.
Twain then set off for a world reading tour in 1895 at the age of 60 to pay off his debts.
But it gets worse:
Twain felt so burnt by failed investments that he refused to invest in another invention -- the telephone -- despite being personally invited by Alexander Graham Bell himself.
Mark Twain Invented the Bra Strap
Twain’s third patent was an adjustable strap for clothing that would permit him to forgo wearing suspenders.
This proved to be another invention that didn’t entirely take off...
except in one unexpected application:
The bra strap.
Manufacturers still use Twain’s elastic band with hook fasteners for bras, but history is silent as to whether he made any money from it.
So, now, that's a thing you know!
3. Gondola Girl
When you think about equal rights and roles for women, you think about “women’s lib” from the 1960s.
Or maybe you think about the ladies working in the factories while the fellas were off fighting the Nazis in WWII.
You may even think back to the flappers -- drinking, smoking, and voting in the 1920s.
But think again.
Whether you call them Gibson Girls or “New Women,” there’s no denying that the ladies of the Gilded Age were like none seen before.
Not only were they going to college, but they were also:
That includes this lovely young lady paddling people around the park during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
You can watch a clip of the gondola’s on parade at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and World’s Fair filmed by Thomas Edison:
If you think that sounds like no big deal, remember this:
Not long before the turn of the century, women didn’t ride horses astride (spread legged, they went side-saddle)...
or go out in public without a chaperone.
Seriously, women needed chaperones to go out. side.
By 1904, they were shopping at department stores, eating out at cafes, and riding bicycles.
Not that anyone knows how they managed in those skirts!
The industrial age brought white collar jobs for women in offices and shops...
And with this newfound freedom, women had more influence in the affairs of the nation.
It also became socially acceptable for women to participate in sports.
New century, new women, new technology
"New Women" weren’t the only new thing to debut at the 1904 World’s Fair.
Ice cream cones and hot dogs were invented there to feed the hungry crowds parading the fair's extensive grounds.
The World’s Fair boasts a long history of introducing new inventions to the mainstream public, and 1904 was no exception.
(designer_start) Please put a box around the following:
Here are a few technological wonders debuted at the 1904 Fair:
One truly iconic American food item that debuted at the fair was Jell-O!
It came courtesy of the Genesee Pure Food Company.
They’d been struggling to sell their flavored gelatin powder until 1904...
when they began giving away free cookbooks for using the dessert mix.
4. Ford Assembly Line
Most of us are grateful to Henry Ford for making the personal auto affordable for the average American. But, this iconic photo highlights Ford’s real invention – assembly line production.
But he wasn't "all that."
Despite Ford’s genius for business, he was also a grade-A, flaming jerk.
Ford owned "The Dearborn Independent" newspaper, which had an anti-Semitic editorial slant.
In fact, when the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series, Ford published:
If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball they have it in three words -- too much Jew.
You-know-who was a big fan of Henry Ford.
Adolf Hitler kept a portrait of Ford on his desk.
Hitler said he was inspired to put Ford’s theories into practice in Germany.
Shocked yet? On top of that:
He even gave the automaker a shout-out in “Mein Kampf.” The Nazis awarded Ford with the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle.
But it gets much worse.
In 1999, newly released Nazi documents show that Ford used slave labor at Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp.
The Chicago Tribune proved what a jerk Henry Ford was in court.
The Tribune called Ford an “ignorant anarchist” in print...
When the auto baron decided to sue for $1 million for libel, all the Tribune had to do was prove it was true.
Battered on the stand with questions about American history, Ford responded that the American Revolution occurred in 1812 and said that Benedict Arnold was a writer. (Neither is true.)
And you'll never believe the verdict.
The jury awarded the case in favor of Henry Ford after 10 hours of deliberation.
Here's the kicker:
They awarded him a whole six cents in damages.
5. Former Federal Prohibition Officers Enjoying a Drink
Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith became nationally known for the number of arrests they made during the early years of Prohibition.
The total: 4,932 arrests.
In the end, Prohibition resulted in more crime and violent deaths than the ones that inspired it.
Did you know?:
The 18th Amendment -- or National Prohibition Act -- is the only constitutional amendment that took away citizen’s rights instead of expanding them.
No wonder most Americans took it so hard!
And no wonder the federal government was unable to enforce it.
Walgreens built his empire on booze
During Prohibition, drinkers could obtain a pint of “spirituous liquor” with a prescription from a doctor with the right permit. In 1919 -- a year before Prohibition -- Charles Walgreen owned 20 pharmacies. By 1929, he owned 525.
The real results of Prohibition
Prohibition resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs in breweries, distilleries, restaurants, and transportation.
Overall, the government lost $11 billion in tax revenue and spent over $300 million trying to enforce Prohibition.
And here's the kicker:
They didn’t do a very good job.
The first documented act that flouted Prohibition occurred a whole 59 minutes after it went into effect...
when 6 armed men in Chicago stole “medicinal whiskey” from a freight train.
The production of alcohol fell into the hands of organized crime. Gangsters like Al Capone made $60 million every year on illegal liquor sales.
Violent crime shot through the roof as these gangs fought to keep their territories for liquor sales.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt put it best:
Little by little it dawned upon me that this law was not making people drink any less, but it was making hypocrites and law breakers of a great number of people.
Fun Fact - Al Capone's Cherry Trees
Al Capone was released early from prison for good behavior...
and failing health due to syphilis.
Well, more to the point, brain damage from the infection.
While he may have been cured in the disease, by the time he was diagnosed in Alcatraz, the brain damage was too extensive.
After his release, he tried to get treatment at John Hopkins, who turned him down because of his reputation.
But Capone didn't give up.
Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore took pity on the gangster and treated him for several weeks.
Here's how he showed his gratitude:
Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FINALLY! And, it may have won him the election...
While many believe FDR won the 1932 election because of his promise to end the Great Depression, many cynics believe his promise to end Prohibition was the reason for his landslide win.
I think this would be a good time for beer.
March 12, 1933
6. Apollo 1 Mission's Scary Foreshadowing
Many people vividly recall the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster from 1986...
It was that generations "911," or "shooting of Kennedy" moment...
The sight of the shuttle bursting into flames and the debris falling to earth was indelibly burned into our minds.
That wasn’t the first time that Americans have suffered a tragedy in our quest to explore space. But it was the first time a stunned nation watched it happen live on television.
On January 27, 1967, during a launch rehearsal for the first Apollo program launch, all three crew members were killed in a cabin fire.
- Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom
- Ed White
- Roger B. Chaffee
In a meeting held before the fatal fire, the crew expressed concerns about flammable material in the cabin. They mentioned the nylon netting and Velcro used to hold equipment in place.
They sent Apollo Spacecraft Program Officer, Joseph F. Shea, the iconic photo above with the inscription:
It isn't that we don't trust you, Joe, but this time we've decided to go over your head.
7. Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill
Many of us have seen iconic photos of President Teddy Roosevelt with his fussy suit and top hat.
Or you may know him better from Robin Williams portrayal of him in "Night at the Museum."
(designer_start) Gif from night and the museum showing the above(designer end)
But most modern Americans don’t know how much of a bad-ass Teddy really was.
In one of the most iconic photos of his life, Teddy poses with his troops after taking San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
How tough was he?
Even though he and his Rough Riders exhausted themselves taking Kettle Hill...
he jumped into action and led 500 men in a charge to take nearby San Juan Hill too.
A man of action
Many historians think that Teddy's drive to stay physically active was his way of avoiding a deep and chronic depression.
Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough. – Theodore Roosevelt
Born in the lap of luxury, with no obvious worries, Teddy found exciting and interesting ways to make life hard for himself.
While other rich kids sat back, went to Harvard, and piloted a desk in the family business until they could retire gracefully, Teddy boxed and studied martial arts.
And when someone stole his boat:
Roosevelt traveled three days in the cold to catch the thieves in the middle of a hunting trip. He and his companions:
- Built another boat from scratch
- Tracked down the thieves across the river and through the badlands
- Apprehended and arrested them.
The near assassination of Teddy Roosevelt
And it that isn't enough to convince you, it gets even better.
In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech on the campaign trail...
after taking a shot from an assassin.
During a campaign stop in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot in the chest by an insane man from a local saloon.
The shot lodged in his chest and would have killed him if not for the folded pages of the speech tucked into his pocket.
Good thing he was such a long-winded speaker!
Roosevelt continued to speak to the crowd, despite the bullet fragments in his body.
After an hour, his aides finally convinced him to go to the nearest hospital.
Teddy Roosevelt's tragic silence
Teddy's first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, died on February 14, 1884, only two days after their only child was born.
Heartbreak is a real thing:
Crushed, he never spoke of her again, calling his new daughter -- named Alice after her mother -- “Baby Lee,” instead.
He even omitted his deceased wife's name from his memoirs.
8. Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin
With the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election...
it's hard to believe there was a time when America had a pretty good relationship with post-Soviet Russia.
But here's the proof.
In one of the most iconic photos from the Clinton presidency, Bill is having a hard time keeping a straight face while a wasted Boris Yeltsin tells the American press that they're "a disaster."
Clinton's laid-back manner made it easy for Yeltsin to let his guard down.
So did the bottle of white wine that Yeltsin drank at lunch.
Clinton once said of Boris Yeltsin:
We can’t ever forget that Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober.
During his first visit to the US to meet with Clinton in 1994, Yeltsin became drunk and wandered out in the street half-naked in search of pizza. The Secret Service found Yeltsin in the street, in his underwear, plastered, and looking for a taxi.
9. The Tehran Conference
In one of the most iconic photos from WWII, FDR and UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.
Most Americans know that the U.S. and Great Britain were allies during WWII...
but many don't know that one of our most important allies against Hitler was the Soviet Union.
In November of 1943, Franklin Roosevelt met with Churchill and Stalin in Tehran to discuss their plans to beat the Germans.
Here's the deal:
FDR had been in communication with Churchill for years before the U.S. entered WWII. They'd even met secretly to discuss a plan for the U.S. to aid the U.K.
Both FDR and Churchill knew that England would fall to Hitler without support from the U.S. in the form of equipment and artillery.
So, Churchill gave a rousing speech. He said:
(designer_start) Please pop out this quote:
We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
At the end of the speech, rumor has it that he turned to a colleague and whispered:
“And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.”
10. All American Girls Professional Baseball League
If you've seen the movie "A League of Their Own," you know why this is one of the most iconic photos in American history.
But the mystery here is:
Why women don't play professional baseball in the U.S. anymore.
For years, they dominated the game with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
And the AAGPBL lasted a lot longer than most people know.
The league formed in 1943 and lasted until 1954, long after the end of the war, and long after all the boys came home.
11. Hillbilly Family Band by Doreatha Lange
One of the Depression era's most iconic photos is “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange...
It shows the touching portrait of a desperate woman. driven to scavenge frozen vegetables from winter fields and kill wild birds to feed her children.
But this iconic image is every bit as touching.
It shows another family in a Social Security Administration emergency camp making music to while away the hungry hours.
12. Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly
Most have seen iconic photos of Buddy Holly with his signature geeky glasses and Brylcreemed hair.
What makes this one so unique is this:
One of rock and roll's greatest legends is right alongside one of country music's greatest performers.
But there's something in this image more profound that makes it so fascinating.
Their youthful exuberance and cheeky swagger are timeless. If you didn't know who these guys were, you wouldn't know if this photo was taken in 1959, 1979, 2009, or even last week.
Lucky break for Jennings
Holly originally reserved a seat for Jennings on the fateful flight that ended his life.
Jennings gave up his seat to another musician who had the flu and wanted to avoid the long, cold bus trip.
When Holly discovered that Jennings was taking the bus, he told him that he hoped his bus broke down.
Jennings shot back, "I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
13. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates
While most of us would assume that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had a bitter rivalry...
the truth is that in the initial days of PC development, they often worked together.
In the early days, Microsoft made software for the Apple II PC, and Jobs asked Gates to supply software for the Macintosh.
Gates even appeared in a promotion for the Macintosh.
But there's more to the story:
When Apple was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1997, Bill Gates invested $150 million in its competitor, saving the company, and ensuring the future of the iPhone.
So, we may actually have Bill Gates to thank for the invention of the smartphone.
14. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
Lucille Ball was a ground-breaking force to reckon with.
Along with breaking ground for women in comedy...
she also broke social barriers by fighting studio heads to get then-husband, Desi Arnaz, cast as her husband on her show.
That's because their marriage was considered controversial.
CBS and the sponsors, cigarette company Phillip Morris, said that audiences wouldn't accept an interracial marriage between her and the Cuban Arnaz.
Lucy held her ground and hit it big with a show featuring television's first interracial couple.
15. The Obamas Dance at the Neighborhood Ball
While the inauguration of a U.S. president is a formal affair full of pomp and circumstance, this iconic photo from the Neighborhood Dance on January 20, 2009, will have you falling in love with love all over again.
Such a cute couple!
The regard and respect with which former President Barack Obama treats Michelle has been called an example for men across the nation.
And despite his years in the hard world of politics, you can see from his expression...
this woman is his whole world.
Who knew politics could be so romantic?
President Obama had to take the oath of office four times during his two terms in office. The first time was because he misplaced a word in the ceremony.
During his second term, tradition dictated that if January 20 falls on a Sunday, the president-elect takes a private oath out of respect for the Sabbath. He then repeats the oath in public on Monday.
16. JFK's Family Leaves Capitol After His Funeral
While many iconic photos from the Kennedy administration circulate through our collective memories, this one stands out for its poignant tragedy.
In 1963, John F. Kennedy was the leader of the free world, responsible for the fate and welfare of one of the world's only two superpowers.
But don't forget:
He was also the father of two small children who would grow up with only stories of their famous father.
17. The Aftermath of 9/11
While iconic photos of the World Trade Center on 9/11 still live on in the American conscious, what wasn't so apparent was how widespread the damage really was.
Here's a peek into that:
This image from a FEMA employee was taken in a nearby office building and shows how far the dust and debris managed to infiltrate the lives and homes of New Yorkers.
An EPA analysis of satellite and aerial photos identified paper, pulverized concrete, and wallboard debris as far from Ground Zero as Brooklyn.
(designer_start) Please add a small map that shows the distance between Ground Zero and Brooklyn. (designer_end)
The search continues
A New York lab still tests human remains to identify people who died in the World Trade Center attacks. As of 2018, only 1,642 have been identified. The lab continues to test the remaining 1,111 for DNA so they can provide closure to the families.
18. Marilyn Monroe
Most iconic images of Marilyn Monroe feature a subway vent blowing up her pleated skirt as she tries to cool off during a steamy New York summer in 1955's "The Seven Year Itch."
But there was a time before that:
Just 10 years before the release of that classic movie, she was photographed as Norma Jean Dougherty for YANK - The Army Weekly magazine.
In 1945, Private David Conover was assigned to the Radioplane Munitions Factory in Burbank, California, to take photographs of civilians doing their bit for the war effort.
Conover photographed young Norma Jean over the course of two weeks, but none of the photos made it to publication.
He told Norma Jean that if she wanted to be an actress, she needed to start out as a model.
That turned out to be good advice:
One year later, she signed her first contract with 20th Century Fox.
19. Fall of the Berlin Wall
With Angela Merkel in the spotlight on the world stage now, it's hard to remember that much of Germany once lived behind a dark wall of oppression.
And it wasn't that long ago.
Erected in 1961, the wall clearly marked the border between "us" and "them" -- and served as a symbol of the Cold War for decades.
- Approximately 5,000 East Germans snuck across the wall
- Around 5,000 got captured trying to cross
- 191 people got killed trying to cross
After pressure to "tear down this wall," by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, East Germany's hard-core Communist government lost power by force in 1989.
On November 9, 1989, East German Socialist Unity Party chief, Günter Schabowski, announced at a press conference that they were opening the border.
When pressed for a date, Schabowski fumbled and said that he assumed it would start immediately.
Here's what happened next:
Within hours, East Germans were gathering at Brandenburg Gate to cross over to democratic West Germany.
They climbed the wall.
They danced on it.
Some picked up chisels and hammers and began to tear down the wall that had separated them from family, friends, and freedom for nearly three decades.
20. Child Survivor of Buchenwald
Of all the iconic photos of Nazi concentration camps, this image of Joseph Schleifstein after the liberation of Buchenwald is both heartbreaking and heartening.
At the age of four, he has the glassy and exhausted gaze of an old man.
But he looks healthy, and he looks well-fed.
And there's a very moving reason for that.
Political prisoners assigned to administrative jobs running the camp used their authority to keep imprisoned children from work duty and away from trigger-happy Nazi guards.
Buchenwald held political prisoners along with Jewish prisoners. Mostly Communists and Socialist who defied the Nazis, these non-Jewish prisoners protected the children interred at the death camp.
They gave the children food from their Red Cross packages.
They put the children first in line when clothing was issued.
Finally, when the Nazis abandoned Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, hours before the U.S. troops arrived, the dissidents hid them so they wouldn't be moved to other concentration camps.
They made sure the children would still be there when the Americans arrived.
High-ranking Buchenwald prisoners
There was a lot of top level people there:
Some of the political prisoners that protected the children of Buchenwald included Ernst Thaelmann, leader of the German Communist Party, along with Léon Blum, leader of the French Socialist Party and former prime minister of France.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning author, Elie Weisel, was interred at Buchenwald at the age of 15 and was also hidden in Barracks 66, the special section where the dissidents hid the young prisoners.
Iconic Photos Teach Us About Human Nature
Along with dragging us down the rabbit-hole of history, these iconic photos also teach us about humanity.
Behind every big historical figure or event is a little story that deserves a voice.
Behind every horrific outrage against humanity are small acts of compassion and kindness.
We learn so much from these iconic photos from history:
Being a woman doesn't make you weak.
Being a rich kid doesn't make you spoiled.
Just because you're a big business success doesn't mean you're a good person.
And being a gangster doesn't mean you don't have a heart.
What are some of your favorite iconic photos of all time? Feel free to share them in the comments below!