Photos From The Past That Have Powerful Backstories

When it comes to processing the vast amount of information that the internet throws at us, a little bit of context can go a long way. For every photo that makes sense on the surface, there are about a hundred that require some explanation.

We're going back in time to have a thoughtful look at some of the most pivotal moments, and important people, of the past century or so. Some of these pics go even further back.

"Võ Thi Thang smiling after being sentenced to 20 years hard labor in a prison camp. After being sentenced she reportedly smiled at the judge and said '20 years? Your government won't last that long.'"

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The courage and bravado on display in this photo is absolutely mind-boggling. Even for someone who's convinced they've been fighting the good fight and is confident the government will fall, it's hard to imagine smiling after getting handed a 20-year sentence.

As it turns out, she was right about the government falling and was released after six years. This photo has become an iconic and potent symbol in Vietnam, and is known as the "Smile of Victory."

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"A man takes a selfie using a stick of wood to activate the camera, 1957."

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The concept of a selfie stick, in theory, could be as old as photography itself. After all, it isn't particularly demanding from a technological standpoint - all you need is a literal stick and a way to press the shutter button.

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Homemade selfie sticks, believe it or not, date back to 1925 or so, more than three decades before this pic was taken. Still, it's fascinating to see such an old example of technology that we tend to view as modern.

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"'Happiest Man in China,' taken in 1901 by British anthropologists after deciding to document Chinese people. They didn't know photos were a 'serious matter' and decided to be goofy, hence the pose and smile."

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It's incredibly rare to see such a natural smile in such an old photo. Way back in the day, photos took a long time to process, which forced people to sit still while the image developed. This made it hard to hold a smile.

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By the time this photo was taken, photography was more accessible. But it was still rare enough that people would tend to put on their best clothes and most stern expressions for any photo they posed in.

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"A policeman in San Francisco scolds a man for not wearing a mask during the 1918 influenza pandemic."

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The composition of this photo suggests that it was not an impromptu moment, but a staged newspaper pic designed to encourage people to wear masks. Still, staged or not, it's impossible not to draw parallels between the 1918 and 2020 pandemics.

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Interestingly, the 1918 pandemic is colloquially known as the "Spanish flu" - a terribly unfair moniker, especially considering it only came about because Spain was more proactive than other countries when it came to documenting its effects.

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"New Yorkers stop to watch the 'Seinfeld' finale, Times Square, 1998."

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We've seen a few TV shows become a massive part of the cultural zeitgeist - M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Lost all come to mind. But while most of these once-colossal shows have been relegated to syndicated reruns over the years, Seinfeld looms large.

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Even a quarter century after its finale, it's still a major pop cultural force. This became evident in 2019 when Netflix acquired exclusive streaming rights for a massive $500 billion, all while remastering every episode in the series.

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"Mobsters hide their faces at Al Capone's trial, 1931."

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For years, Al Capone was the undisputed boss of Chicago's organized crime syndicate, and it wasn't until 1931 that the feds finally managed to bring him down (famously for tax evasion).

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It's no surprise that some of the gangsters who testified against Capone wanted to hide their identities. First off, there was no guarantee that Capone would be convicted, and even if he was, he could still issue demands from prison. Capone would die just 10 years later, physically and mentally spent.

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"Actor and martial arts star Jackie Chan at the benefit concert in Hong Kong, in support of Tiananmen Square protesters - 1989."

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The Chinese government's brutal crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989 garnered international condemnation. Given the government's tactics, the bravery on display by the protesters (notably Tank Man) and their supporters was incredibly courageous.

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To add some context, the woman standing next to Jackie Chan is Anita Mui, a singer and actress from Hong Kong who collaborated with Chan on a number of his '90s hits. She acted and toured right up until her tragic death from cancer in 2003.

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"The 9 Kings of Europe gather for the first and only time for a photograph at the funeral of King Edward VII in London. May 20th, 1910."

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Europe in the early 20th century was in a period of awkward transition, with the monarchies of the pre-war years rapidly evolving into democracies. This change was rarely smooth, and the only way for monarchies to survive was to surrender most of their power and become figureheads.

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Nicholas II of Russia, who's in this photo, became one of the main symbols behind the anti-monarchy movements that swept Russia. In 1918, the entire Romanov royal family - including Nicholas II - were slaughtered by Bolsheviks.

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"Remember that photo of the construction workers having lunch on the unfinished Empire State Building? Here's photographer Charles Ebbets taking that photo. 9/20/1932."

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I can't tell whether I should be impressed that this guy is so cool while sitting a hundred feet up in the air, or horrified that health and safety regulations were apparently so lax in the '30s.

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Ebbets is best known for his iconic photo of construction workers on the skyscraper (Lunch atop a Skyscraper), but his photography career was particularly long-lived. By the time of his death in 1978, more than 300 of his photographs had appeared in national publications.

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"Las Vegas police facing Mike Tyson after he'd just bitten Holyfield's ear off, 1996."

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Throughout the '90s, Tyson versus Holyfield was viewed as a dream match - and, for a variety of reasons, it took a long time for the two heavyweights to finally square off. But when they did in 1996, the tagline for the fight was just one word: "Finally."

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We now know that the fight was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Knowing that Tyson was in attack mode and had literally just bitten a man's ear off helps explain why the police look so terrified.

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"The Undertaker looks down at medical staff checking on Mankind after he fell, unscripted, through the top of Hell in a Cell into the ring 16 feet below. June 28, 1998."

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Even without context, the composition of this photo makes it look like a Renaissance painting. But with context, things get even more fascinating - and might not be for those who have a weak stomach.

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The fall of Mankind - the ring name of hardcore wrestling legend Mick Foley - was not planned. Foley was knocked unconscious and numerous people on the scene, including the Undertaker, thought he might be dead. Incredibly, Foley not only recovered, but he managed to finish the match.

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"Soviet peasants listen to the radio for the first time, 1928."

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Have you ever wondered how mind-blowing it would be to come from a world without modern technology and experience television, or radio for the first time? This pic gives some clue of how overwhelming it might have been.

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Even in the western world, wireless communication of any kind was still a newfangled invention in the early 20th century. At the beginning of the 1920s, there were only 5 radio stations in the U.S. - and by the end of the decade, there were over 600.

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"A Coca Cola advertisement made by spreading grains for pigeons in Saint Mark's Square, Venice, 1960."

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Saint Mark's Square has been Venice's main gathering area for centuries, and its classical architecture doesn't lend itself well to advertising - not that advertising is allowed to begin with.

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Coca-Cola, in a move that would leave modern-day ad agencies jealous, found a unique way to advertise their product: by spreading out birdseed to spell out their name. We'll have to dock them a few points for not going the extra mile to replicate the brand's distinctive script branding.

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"The Endurance ship being stuck in the Antarctic ice (forever)."

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In case you're wondering, the caption here is not hyperbole. The famed Endurance, captained by Sir Ernest Shackleton, did indeed become stuck in Antarctic pack ice and would never be freed.

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Shackleton's expedition came at the tail end of the golden era of arctic exploration. After abandoning ship, Shackleton made it back home - but the ship remained, unseen, until it was rediscovered in 2022. Today, it's a protected historic site and monument.

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"Survivors of 1972 of the Infamous Andes plane crash. The passengers resorted to cannibalism to survive 72 days in the snow."

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Survival stories typically come up from old-timey expeditions, or desperation during times of war. But in 1972, a rugby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, found themselves in a desperate fight for survival after their plane crashed in the remote Andes while en route to Chile.

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Sadly, 29 of the 45 passengers and crew on the plane died in the crash or shortly thereafter. But the gory details of cannibalism undercut one of the most powerful survival stories of the past century.

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"Fred Rogers performing a "bedside solo show" for 7-year old Beth Usher during her coma after undergoing surgery. Baltimore, Maryland. February 1987."

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Fred Rogers - best known as Mister Rogers - was a fundamentally good person. His gentle, good natured TV persona helped teach generations of kids to be kind and thoughtful people - good neighbors, in other words.

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But behind the scenes, Fred Rogers, the real person, might have had an even bigger heart than Mister Rogers, his TV persona. There are countless stories and images just like this that show just what a special person he was.

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"Indigenous children forced to pray to god in a residential school ran by the Canadian government and Catholic Church between 1930 and 1970, unknown location."

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American readers are likely already familiar with the spectre of colonialism - the Trail of Tears being a notable example of the country's shameful treatment of its indigenous people.

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To the north, Canada had a similarly problematic relationship with indigenous people. The residential school system, of which the last outpost closed in 1997, separated children from their parents, oftentimes subjecting them to abuse. It's only in recent years that the full scope of this period in history has come to light.

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"Dr. Erich Salomon faked a broken arm so he could hide a camera in his cast to photograph the U.S. Supreme Court, 1932."

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At first blush, this isn't a particularly impressive photo. It isn't well focused, and artifacts around its borders suggest that the snapshot was taken in a hurry, without much aiming.

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It's the details that make this one so noteworthy. It turns out the photographer was in a hurry to take a covert photo, because photos of the Supreme Court in session are explicitly banned. This is one of only two - both taken surreptitiously - known to exist.

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"At 4:31 AM, an unauthorized photo taken of Stalin inside of the Kremlin shows the very moment he was informed that Germany had began their invasion of the Soviet Union."

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It's jarring to see such a notorious historical figure in a candid moment like this, and rarer still to see them looking so defeated. It's a marked contrast from the typical photos of Stalin that show a proud, barrel-chested dictator.

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Few parts of the world were left unscathed by the fallout of World War II, but the toll on the Soviet Union was truly staggering. About 27 million people - a significant percentage of the country's population - lost their lives during the war.

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"George Carlin being arrested for violating Wisconsin's obscenity laws after performing the controversial routine 'Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television' May 27th 1972."

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Generally speaking, society's standards have become more permissive over time, but the morality police will always exist. The late George Carlin is regarded today as a groundbreaking comedian who spoke truth to power.

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But back in 1972, at the tail end of the hippie era, Carlin's transgressions were viewed in a less charitable light. We're a family site, so we won't list what those seven words are - but if you look them up, you can understand why such a routine was so shocking at the time.

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"Babies left to sleep outside to aid immune sistem, Moscow, 1958."

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This might seem drastic or even barbaric, but it's actually a tried-and-true practice when it comes to childcare. The body gets its most restorative sleep, and falls asleep faster, when it's falling asleep in a cold environment.

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Obviously hypothermia can be a risk, but so long as the babies are thoroughly bundled up, they'll be okay. This practice is still carried out in some parts of the world, all in the service of boosting babies' immune systems.

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"Anne Frank's father Otto, revisiting the attic where they hid from the Nazis. He was the only surviving family member. 1960."

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It's impossible to imagine what must be going through Otto Frank's head in this moment. By 1960, World War II had been over for 15 years and he'd had some time to process the horrors of the Holocaust and the loss of his family - but revisiting this space must have been incredibly traumatic.

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Otto Frank would, of course, spearhead the publication of his daughter's famous diary, which would in turn educate generations of children to come about some of the darkest days of human history.

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"A French boy introduces himself to Indian soldiers who had just arrived in France to fight alongside French and British forces, Marseilles, 30th September 1914."

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The colorization of this photo brings a certain immediacy that black and white just can't capture. The sunbaked ground and expression on the soldiers' faces make it look like this photo could have been snapped yesterday, rather than a century ago.

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It's also a powerful reminder that war will always affect civilians. Whether the occupying forces are attackers or liberators, the very presence of armed soldiers in combat create upheaval in the area that's typically felt for many years.

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"A man browses for books in the old Public library of Cincinnati. The building was demolished in 1955. Today an office building and a parking lot stand where it used to be."

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This fantastical image almost doesn't seem real, but this is in fact the best way to store lots and lots of books in a way that a)confines them to a small footprint, and b) keeps them accessible.

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It also serves as a reminder of how much things have changed. We still have books and we still preserve books, but most research is done via computers nowadays. Researchers who rely on books are generally seeking out knowledge that hasn't yet been made electronic.

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"'Human Fly' George Willig scales the exterior of the World Trade Center's South Tower in 1977."

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What looks at first like just another shot of the World Trade Center actually shows something remarkable - that tiny speck about three-quarters of the way up the tower on the left is actually the 'Human Fly' himself, climbing the tower without the aid of safety equipment.

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For his stunt, Willig was fined just $1.10 - exactly one cent for each of the 110 floors he climbed. Today, a similar stunt would probably result in a far heftier fine, along with jail time.

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"NYC protest, July 7, 1941."

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Nowadays, the narrative surrounding World War II states that the war needed to be fought on moral grounds, because the atrocities carried out by Nazi Germany needed to be stopped. But early on in the conflict, opinions were mixed.

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At the time this photo was taken - after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe but before Pearl Harbor - many Americans had an isolationist mindset and didn't want to get involved. Disturbingly, there was even a groundswell of support, including a rally in New York's Madison Square Garden, for the Nazi party.

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"The Carter administration installed 32 panels on the White House designed to harvest the sun's rays and use them to heat water in 1979."

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The environmentalist and conservationist movements are a relatively new development in human history (and, many would argue, have come along too late). Still, here's an early example of a high-profile figure attempting to lead by example when it comes to environmentalism.

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Jimmy Carter was a fascinating president who didn't really hold office for long enough for Americans to get to know him. Following his one-term presidency, he went on to work for decades building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

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"The wives of the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission at the moment they heard their husband's voices from orbit, 1968."

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If you've ever felt stressed about what your spouse is doing - whether they're reckless, or involved in dangerous work, or simply are away from home for long stretches - spare a thought for the spouses of astronauts.

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It's tough to fathom how it must have felt to know that your other half was literally blasting off into space, and in some cases going as far as the moon. This was during the early era of space travel, too, when things were less certain.

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"George H.W. Bush takes a toboggan ride with Arnold Schwarzenegger at Camp David, 1991."

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My nostalgia for this particular era wants to see more neon snowsuits in this photo, but then again, seeing the 41st president and the world's greatest action star (at perhaps the height of his fame), is a very 1991 photo.

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At the time this photo was taken, few people would have guessed that barely a decade later, a second George Bush would hold the presidency, while Arnold Schwarzenegger would be governor of California. Back then, all they were doing was going on a little toboggan ride.

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"Statue of Liberty towering over Paris just before it was disassembled and shipped to New York, 1886."

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The Statue of Liberty, in its distinctive pale green coloring, is an iconic part of New York Harbor. In fact, it's probably the number one symbol of the Big Apple. But it wasn't always green, and it wasn't always in New York.

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Because of the lack of color photography at the time, it's easy to forget that for the first decades of its existence, before its copper developed its green patina, the statue was actually a rich metallic brown color.

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Nirvana during the photo shoot for their album Nevermind, which was released in 1991.

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Everyone and their mother is familiar with the cover of Nirvana's seminal Nevermind, which essentially signalled the end of hair metal and the beginning of the grunge era. At the time of the photoshoot, none of the members of the band could have guessed at how big the album would get.

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This is a reminder of how fast things can move for celebrities. Before the release of Nevermind, this was a largely unknown band. Within a year, they'd be massive - and within three years, they'd be done.

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"A group of frontiersmen with an advertisement. Montana, 1901."

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This is nothing new in human history: when people start an outpost in a far-flung, remote area, it's necessary to populate it in order to have any long-term success as a community.

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Still, it's kind of jarring to see things put so plainly: "Wives wanted." One would think that these are desperate men to try to settle here, and any woman willing to make the move would have to be similarly desperate. Times were clearly very different in Montana back in 1901.

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"San Francisco's iconic Cliff House, shortly before it was destroyed by fire in 1907."

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If you had to guess what took down this building, you'd probably guess erosion over a fire, since that massive mansion seems to be so precariously perched on the cliffside. Still, old-school buildings were fire traps, and Cliff House was no exception.

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Happily, Cliff House was rebuilt after the fire and remains in the same spot to this day. The rebuilt Cliff House, which looks quite a bit different from the one seen here, was rebuilt in 1909.

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"David Isom, 19, broke the color line in a segregated pool in Florida on June 8, 1958, which resulted in officials closing the facility."

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We don't live in a time of racial harmony, but we've certainly come a long way in a relatively short period of time. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s - within living memory for many people - segregation was alive and well.

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It took many small acts of brave defiance such as this, alongside a groundswell of support that led to the Civil Rights movement, to break down some of these barriers and introduce legislation that banned such overt discrimination.

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"Queen Elizabeth II in her robes on the occasion of her coronation in June, 1953."

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Now that Queen Elizabeth II has passed, we can take the long view at her remarkable reign. She held the crown for an incredible 70 years. Not only is that a remarkably long period of time, she also oversaw some dramatic changes in geopolitics.

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At the time of her coronation in 1953, England was battered in the wake of World War II and in the process of carving up its empire. Despite public sentiment turning against the royal family, the Queen remained popular.

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"John F. Kennedy campaigning door-to-door in West Virginia, 1960."

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This photo really captures rural life in coal country throughout much of the 20th century. Parts of West Virginia evolved from being seen as the unspoiled frontier, to an industrial powerhouse, to an impoverished wasteland, all in less than a century.

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JFK's campaigning paid off as he would win the presidency. But West Virginia's problems were just beginning, as coal workers were some of the first workers in the United States to be made redundant by mechanization.

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"112 year-old Teimruz Vanacha (left), veteran of WWI and the Russian Civil War, with his son Ivan, a veteran of WWII, in 1980."

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Anyone who's lived 110 years is bound to have a few stories to tell, and anyone who lived through these particular 110 years - most of the 20th century and a decent chunk of the 19th as well - definitely saw a lot.

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Even the styles of uniforms the two men are wearing speak volumes. The old man is wearing something that wouldn't have looked out of place in 19th century Russia, while his son looks more suited to the Cold War.

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"The Procrastinators Club of America protesting against Former President James Madison and the War of 1812. Philadelphia, 1966."

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There's so much serious history, and somber history, in some of these photos that we could all use a bit of humor at this point. In 1966, real protests were springing up as the Civil Rights Movement took hold - but these guys were just joking around.

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The War of 1812, for those keeping score at home, ended more than 150 years before this protest. Maybe these guys just wanted to hold up some signs while staying out of contemporary politics.

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"Manhattan in 1931."

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The resolution in this photo isn't high enough to pick out specific buildings, but anyone who knows Manhattan will immediately recognize this photo - even though it was taken nearly a century ago.

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While there were fewer skyscrapers and more low-rise buildings at the time, everything that makes New York what it is - long, straight streets, endless sprawl, and of course the grassy oasis of Central Park - can all be seen in this old aerial photo.

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"The McDonald brothers in front of the not yet opened first McDonald's, November 1948."

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Today, after famously serving billions and billions of burgers, McDonald's is rightly seen as an essentially faceless multinational conglomerate. Go back a few years and you might delve into the story of Ray Kroc, who brought the chain to prominence.

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Go back to the very beginning, though, and you have this: the humble McDonald brothers, who were just opening up their very first hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, in 1948. They had no idea just how big things would become.