25 Extraordinary Historical Photos That Give A Rare Glimpse Into The Past

Inside your wallet or in the picture app on your phone, you’ve probably got a photograph that’s special to you. You might not look at it every day, but it’s important to you that it’s there. That’s because the best photos bring the past to life, right down to how people were feeling and thinking at that time.

These 25 photographs document some of the most memorable and noteworthy moments in human history. Some show instances you may remember from your younger years, while others are so old that they almost look like they’re from another world. Which ones do you find the most surprising?

1. Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest athletes ever, and he also won over the public with his famous sense of humor. Life magazine published a series of photos of the boxer supposedly training underwater, but it turns out this was just a prank. In truth, Ali didn’t know how to swim, so his story about practicing in the pool was a total fabrication.

2. Maybe the Sphinx doesn’t have a nose because Louis Armstrong blew it off with his trumpet when the jazz great visited Egypt as a cultural ambassador in 1961. During the Cold War, the United States sent Armstrong and other stars to countries around the world to show off the superiority of Western life.

Open Culture

3. We love to complain about our cellphones nowadays, but we have no idea just how good we have it. This monstrosity is a telephone line tower in Stockholm, Sweden. It held over 5,000 lines at its peak, but the invention of underground cables soon made the tower obsolete. The city finally demolished it in 1953.

4. Ham the Astrochimp earned the distinction of being the first hominid in space when NASA launched him into orbit in 1961. Ham did more than just sit back and enjoy the ride. He actually received training to help maneuver his ship! Ham’s success was a huge step forward for the Americans in the Space Race.

5. After President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his family and colleagues gathered to honor him at the Arlington National Cemetery. Here, his young son, JFK Jr., salutes while Jackie and Bobby Kennedy mourn behind him.

6. Titled “Toffs and Toughs,” this famous photograph illustrates the steep class divide in 1900s Great Britain. Here, three working-class schoolchildren snicker at a pair of dressed-up young gentlemen. 

7. When legendary United States General George S. Patton passed away, the entire country felt his loss, but they weren’t the only ones. This photo of Patton’s grieving dog was taken on the day of his passing. 

8. Before the United States sent a man into space, scientists needed to study the medical effects of weightlessness. To test it out, Captain Drury Parks took a cat up with him 25,000 feet in the air. While the feline returned unharmed, he certainly didn’t seem to enjoy the trip.

9. For fans of the royal family, this photo is a dream come true. Nine kings from across Europe gathered in England for the funeral of Edward VII. As you can probably guess, most of these monarchs were related in one way or another, and a couple of them went to war just a couple years later.

DeviantArt / Farah Khan

10. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum originally envisioned Mount Rushmore having full-body depictions of four U.S. Presidents, as seen in the model below. However, the project ran out of money midway through construction, and only the heads ended up in the monument.

Wikimedia Commons

11. During the Second World War, London residents spent quite a bit of time in bomb shelters due to frequent German air raids. Nevertheless, they had a real knack for keeping calm and carrying on. Below, children and their parents celebrate Christmas despite being holed up deep underground.

12. The United States wasn’t the only country to send animals into space. The Soviet Union did it first! Laika started out as a stray dog in Moscow, but Russian scientists adopted her and made her one of the first cosmonauts. Laika sadly did not survive her voyage, but her country erected a monument in her honor.

13. Though she was only six years old, Ruby Bridges was incredibly brave. She became one of the first six black students to desegregate a New Orleans public school in 1960. Just out of frame in this photo is a throng of racist protestors, who jeered at and taunted Ruby as she walked to and from class.

14. It sounds crazy today, but the first football players competed without any helmets! Helmets became more widespread in the sport in the early 1900s, though they were made of leather and had no face mask. Below, an eager athlete tests out one of the latest models, with a captive audience enjoying the show.

15. Lots of people know that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France, but were you aware that they also built it in different sections? The Paris World’s Fair proudly displayed the head — still with its original gold color — for visitors in 1878. The full statue didn’t arrive in the United States until 1886.

16. Was the Air Force so low on recruits that they accepted an old man? No, posing with that jet is Bill Lundy, allegedly the last surviving Civil War veteran. After he died in 1957, some historians claimed that he lied about his age and service to chase after fame and obtain a government pension.

17. Historically speaking, King Tutankhamun wasn’t one of the great Egyptian pharaohs, but his tomb held a mountain of ancient riches the likes of which had never seen by modern eyes. In this image, British archaeologist Howard Carter and an assistant carefully inspect the ornate sarcophagus of King Tut.

National Geographic

18. Benito Mussolini seized power in 1922, and soon after, his Fascist Party took over  almost every aspect of Italian life. This disturbing facade is part of Rome’s Palazzo Braschi, which served as the Facists’ local headquarters. A portrait of Mussolini stared down at everyone who passed through the busy square.

19. Before The Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover became one of the most famous images in music, they waited patiently to cross the busy street. We can see Paul McCartney directing their photographer where to stand to get the best shot. Just a few months later, the Fab Four broke up for good.

20. Following the end of World War I, the United States celebrated by setting up a public display called “Victory Way” in New York City. The most stunning sight was 12,000 spiked German helmets — taken from captured soldiers — stacked into a pyramid in front of Grand Central Station.

21. Today, we can plop a few ice cubes into our drinks with just the push of a button. However, ice used to be a more precious commodity. Here, we see two ladies delivering a large shipment of ice in 1918. It looks like hard work, but at least they weren’t getting overheated!

22. Despite finishing last in his class at West Point, George Custer stood out during the Civil War and worked his way up to the rank of major general. Seated on the far right, he relaxes with other Union officers before a battle. In 1876, he made his ill-fated “Last Stand” against Native American forces, which resulted in the obliteration of his entire detachment.

23. When Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1919, the United States officially adopted Prohibition. This law made the processing and sale of alcohol illegal, and police aggressively disposed of any stores of booze they could find. They would even dump barrels of it out the window! Congress later repealed Prohibition in 1933.

24. Check out these famous friends! Below, author Mark Twain fidgets with some lit-up device in the laboratory of Nikola Tesla. New technology fascinated Twain, and Tesla’s electrical gadgets were at the forefront of science in the late 1800s.

25. Titanic passenger Sylvia Caldwell declared, “God himself could not sink this ship,” and many others shared her opinion. However, we all know how that turned out. This photograph is the last known image of the ocean liner before it went down to the briny deep in 1912.