A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Can You Guess in Which Decade These Iconic Photos Were Taken?

Go ahead and see how many you get right. But be forewarned: Some of these are tricky!

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Pile of old photographs with question mark on top
malerapaso/Getty Images

Pop quiz!

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words—but some convey so much more than that. That’s the case for these historic images. While you may have seen some of them before, there’s a good chance you might not know exactly when they’re from. Put your knowledge of history to the test and see how many of these iconic photos you can match to their correct decades.

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Harry S. Truman, president-elect, holds up edition of Chicago Daily Tribune with headline Dewey Defeats Truman. The Republican newspaper followed the public polls predictions that Truman would be defeated by Dewey. Instead, Truman won with electoral votes to spare and a 49.6 % of the popular vote to Deweys 45.1 %. Nov. 3, 1948. - Historical Collection

President Thomas Dewey

Wait. President Dewey? If that doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Thomas Dewey was never actually elected president. In this photo, taken on November 3, 1948, dark-horse president-elect Harry S. Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune—which had clearly spoken too soon. It wasn’t just the Tribune, however. Everyone had expected Dewey to win, but late into the vote-counting, it turned out that Truman had defeated Dewey on the basis of both electoral votes and the popular vote. Did you get that one right? Try your hand at these U.S. presidential trivia questions everyone gets wrong.

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John Quincy ADAMS, 1767-1848, 6th President of the United States of America, 1825-9, daguerrotype by Southworth and Hawes, 1843 Art (Portraits) - various
The Art Archive/Shutterstock

The oldest presidential photograph

So, if you recall from history class that photography was invented in the late 1820s, then you might assume this is a photograph of John Quincy Adams, whose term ran from 1825 through 1829. You would be correct. This is John Quincy Adams…but this photo was actually taken in 1843, long after Adams had left office. The first sitting president to be photographed was apparently taken of William Henry Harrison in 1841, but that image was “lost to history,” according to the Atlantic, making Adams’ image the oldest surviving photograph of an American president. You might be surprised to learn about these other 22 surprising presidential firsts.

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Workmen on face of George Washington at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. 1932.

Mount Rushmore, under construction

If you know that the construction of Mount Rushmore began in 1927, you might assume that this photograph was taken in the late 1920s. Close, but not correct. This photograph was actually taken in 1932 while workmen were carving the face of George Washington.

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Florence Lawrence - 1911
Lubin Manufacturing Company/Kobal/Shutterstock

The first movie star

The first movie star in history was the woman pictured here in 1911: Florence Lawrence. Her first role was in a movie about Daniel Boone from 1906. In the next year alone, she made 40 more films. Why don’t you know her name? It wasn’t until the 1920s that movies included a credit reel that told you who played which role. Check out these true stories behind 23 of the most iconic photos in American history.

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ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL, demonstrating how to make a phone call in New York, March 12, 1876. Bell is talking to Thomas Watson & says, Mr. Watson -- Come here -- I want to see you.

The first phone call

In this photo, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, demonstrates how to make a phone call. “Mr. Watson,” Bell famously said into the phone. “Come here, I want to see you.” The date was March 12, 1876. It’s hard to remember life before smartphones, but this is what phones looked like the decade you were born.

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A young Oprah Winfrey and her fellow high school student Anthony Otey, who were named 'Most Popular' students at East Nashville High School in 1971

Most popular at her high school

You might recognize the young woman in this photo, taken in 1971, as Oprah Winfrey. It’s from Winfrey’s high school yearbook (she graduated that year), and it shows her with classmate Anthony Otey. Otey and Winfrey had been voted Most Popular at East Nashville High School. Things didn’t always come easily for Oprah, though. Check out the ironic “failures” of wildly successful people, including Lady O.

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Robert Cornelius (1809-1893) was an American pioneer of photography. This self-portrait was taken outside of his family's store. It is the first known image of a human in American history.
Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

The first selfie

Nope, this wasn’t a historic first made by a Kardashian. Since you know that the first photograph was taken in the 1820s and that photography had become available to the public in the late 1830s, you might be able to guess when the first selfie, shown here, was taken. The answer? 1839. That’s when Robert Cornelius, an early pioneer of photography, set up a camera to take this picture of himself.

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Men, women, and children enjoying the surf at Atlantic City, New Jersey, c. 1890-1900. Most women wear a middy style swimming dress with fill long sleeves and stockings. The men wear short sleeves t-shirts with long shorts

Atlantic City’s beach scene

Here’s a photo of a crowded beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Since it’s the middle of summer, the fact that everyone is pretty well covered up should be a clue that this photograph was taken a long time ago. In fact, it was taken at the turn of the 20th century, when it was common for men to wear short sleeves and long shorts, and for women to wear mid-length dresses, when splashing around in the waves. For your own old photos, make sure you know these tips for keeping antique family photos looking their best.

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Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two.
Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

“Migrant Mother”

That was the name given to this photograph by its photographer, Dorothea Lange. The subject is Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother of seven, struggling to keep her family together and her children fed. Did you guess that this photo was taken during the Great Depression? Then you guessed correctly. The date of the photo is 1936, during those difficult years that began in the wake of the October 1929 stock-market crash.

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Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

Ivana Trump

With those shoulder pads and that big hair, the former Mrs. Donald Trump must have been out for a nibble of truffles and caviar at the Quilted Giraffe circa 1985, right? Nope. This photograph of Ivana Trump was taken at a lunch to benefit City Meals on Wheels in 1997. If you loved the ’80s, you’ll appreciate these 18 pictures that will bring you right back to that memorable decade.

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Beaver Dam, Wisconsin: c. 1928. A woman cooking in her kitchen, which is equipped with a Monarch electric stove.
Underwood Archives/UIG/Shutterstock

A housewife in her natural habitat

Photos of happy housewives aren’t unique to any particular decade, but this photo, which appears to be an advertisement for the Monarch electric stove, places it solidly in the late 1920s. Another clue, albeit a more subtle one, is the relatively curveless body type of the model. Do you love the decade of Art Deco and The Great Gatsby? Here are 20 things you had no idea happened in 1920.

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David Bowie
Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock

David Bowie

If you guessed that this photo is of David Bowie, you’re correct so far. Now, the question is which David Bowie? The multitalented artist had many personas that spanned many decades, but the one pictured here is perhaps the least well-known: Davie Jones. Born David Jones, he went by “Davie” when he began his career, and he made his first television appearance shortly after this photo was taken in the summer of 1964.

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A long line of New Yorkers winds toward the entrance to Morrisania Hospital in the Bronx, New York April 14,1947, where doctors are innoculating against smallpox. They were attempting to half spread of the disease. Officials said city residents were being vaccinated at the rate of eight a minute

Millions line up to receive smallpox vaccinations

In this photo, hundreds of New Yorkers are pictured waiting in line for a smallpox vaccination, though ultimately, millions would receive the vaccine. Was this taken in the first days of the smallpox vaccine? Nope. Those days, the early 1800s, predated photography. This image is from April 1947, at the tail end of a smallpox epidemic that had begun a month earlier when a man unwittingly brought the illness back with him from a trip to Mexico.

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Annie OAKLEY, 1860-1936, Wild West Show cowgirl called "Little Sure Shot" c. 1885
Bill Manns/Shutterstock

Annie got her gun

Annie Oakley was quick on the trigger, all right. Born Phoebe Ann Mosey in 1860, she was a talented sharpshooter and performed with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show starting in 1885, which is when this photo was taken. Although Oakley is generally portrayed as an icon of women’s rights, and it’s true that she campaigned for “equal pay for equal work,” she was not an advocate of women gaining the right to vote. “She hedged that the concept was acceptable if only the good women voted,” according to History.com. Don’t miss these moments that changed women’s history forever.

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An Amish buggy waits in the falling snow to cross a roadway in Middlefield, Ohio.
Amy Sancetta/AP/Shutterstock

Spoiler alert: This one’s a trick!

Here is a photo of an Amish horse and buggy on a snowy day in December. But December of which year? Because the Amish way of life isn’t tied to technological progress, it could just as easily be 1950 as it could be 1890…or 2003, as happens to be the case.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.