True Stories Behind 23 of the Most Iconic Photos in American History
From heartbreak to joy and everything in between, each of these iconic photos tell a truly American story.
Snapshots of History
History buff or not, these iconic photos capture standout moments from the human story. Learn the stories behind these photos, and the individuals featured within them, including a shot from the battlefield of the Civil War; Lou Gehrig wiping away tears, as he announced his retirement; and the final moments of the crew before boarding the Challenger.
The first selfie
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In 1939, more than 120 years after the first photograph ever was taken, Robert Cornelius set up a camera in the back of his family’s store and took what’s believed to be the very first photographic self-portrait ever. What’s astounding is how long it took for someone to take that first “selfie.” One thing is for sure—he nailed his lighting, and so did the takers of these other historical selfies.
The first presidential portrait
The very first president to be photographed was our sixth, John Quincy Adams. But even then, it wasn’t until 1843, more than a decade after he left office. It took until 1849 for the first president in office to have his photograph taken. That was James K. Polk and the photographer was Mathew Brady, who was also well-known for his photographs of Civil War battlefields.
Death on the battlefield
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For most of history, the horrors of war could only be described by those who’d been on the battlefield. That began to change in 1846 during the Mexican-American War when an unknown member of the American armed forces took what’s believed to be the first battlefield photograph. But it wasn’t until the Civil War that non-military men began traveling with the army in an effort to photographically chronicle our nation’s fights. This photo, taken by Alexander Gardner, depicts “the effect of a shell on a Confederate Soldier” during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1863
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This iconic photograph of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was taken just one week before he delivered his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863 (“Four score and seven years ago…”). Contrary to popular belief, he did not write it on the back of the envelope—these are other presidential “facts” that aren’t true, either.
Billy the Kid
Born in 1859 in New York, Billy the Kid gained fame as a Wild West legend and one of America’s most notorious outlaws. By the time he was shot down in 1881 at age 21 by Sheriff Pat Garett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, he’d killed at least 12 men (he claimed it was more than 20). This 1878 photo is the only photo of Billy the Kid that’s known to exist. Here are more of America’s most notorious criminals, from every state.
Aviation takes off
Wilbur and Orville Wright were brothers and best buddies who ushered in the age of modern aviation. On December 17, 1903, they flew the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight, depicted here, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (technically, Orville was in the plane, and Wilbur was on the ground, but they always took dual credit for everything). Learn about 12 other famous siblings who changed history.
San Francisco Earthquake
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a violent earthquake broke loose with an epicenter near San Francisco. Thousands of lives were lost during the “great” San Francisco Earthquake, which still ranks as one of the most significant earthquakes of all time. Pictured here is the damage to a row of Victorian homes on Howard Street near 17th Avenue. This isn’t the only earthquake whose damage was captured by the photograph; here are 6 others.
Young girl working in a cotton mill
Between 1908 and 1912, investigative photographer Lewis Hine traveled across America photographing children working in factories, fields, and mines—some as young as three, and all enduring work weeks that averaged 65 to 70 hours. Hine’s photos—like this one of a young girl—helped catalyzed a change in public sentiment toward child labor and ultimately led to modern child labor laws.
Charlie Chaplin as the “Little Tramp”
Charlie Chaplin’s most iconic on-screen character was the “Little Tramp,” which he debuted in the 1914 silent film, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Dressed in baggy pants, a tiny hat, and huge shoes and bearing exaggeratedly polite manners, a super-expressive face, and a hilarious toes-out walk, Chaplin’s most recognizable alter-ego appeared in films through 1952 and made Chaplin one of Hollywood’s first celebrities. Never seen a Charlie Chaplin film? Here are the other classic movies people lie about having watched.