It seems as though when you go digging around in Google images, if you stumble upon those photos of the vintage, black and white variety, more often than not they are creepy, bizarre, or downright terrifying. Why is it that photos from the olden days appear so much more sinister than pictures taken recently? Is it that we are just not as familiar with such images, and the clothing, styles, and behaviors that they memorialize? As humans, is it simply our nature to fear the unknown in that way? I do not have the answer, and can only say that the endless supply of vintage photographs available online is at once enriching, fascinating, and sometimes, scary as hell.
I have rounded up some of them that illustrate in particular how different the world used to be (and by different, I mean freaky). Take that to mean what you will- weird, frightening, intriguing, whatever. But the fact is that even 10 years ago, our world was vastly different than it is now, between all the advances in technology and the ever-growing progressiveness of society. So as you can imagine, life hundreds of years ago, and even decades ago, resembled another planet more closely than it resembled the people we descended from. From Halloween costumes to medical experiments to war to dangerous activities that people back then were not aware were dangerous and everything in between, the photographs of our world throughout history generally fall into one of three categories: cheesy, WTF, or they have the ability to terrify you to your core. There seem to be no other options.
So here are 16 of the photos that show us how lucky we are to be living in the age that we do, because based on these images, it would be pretty scary to be alive back then.
16. Pouring Acid Onto Swimmers
In this photo, a hotel owner named James Brock is seen purposely pouring acid into the water of a swimming pool filled with people- specifically, African American people. It is such a casual-looking photograph on first glance, but when you look closely, the truth of what is happening is horrific. But the reality is that at one time in history, things like this were not as shocking as they would be nowadays because society was a lot less accepting of many more groups of people. And relatively, these times were not even that long ago. This famous picture was taken by Horace Cort on June 18, 1964, just 53 years ago. The swimmers were part of a swim-in planned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The pool was a “white only” pool, part of the Monson Motor Lodge in Florida, where Dr. King had stayed just the week before. Here, Brock was trying to break up the swim-in.
15. Budapest Smile Club
The fact that a city somewhere in the world once decided to have a club just for smiling is perhaps strange, but overall it is a pleasant thing, not something to be thought of as creepy. However, for the Budapest Smile Club in 1930’s Hungary, it is the reason behind the smiles (and the apparently-desperate need for them) that is so chilling. At that time and in that place, a suicide epidemic had plagued the city in the wake of World War I. So the city that had become known as the “City of Suicides” decided to make themselves the “City of Smiles” instead. They even had a school that taught the art of several famous smiles, such as the Mona Lisa smile, the Roosevelt smile, and others. In the above photo, a group of Hungarians at the school use medical tape to practice smiling, and it looks rather terrifying. But, props to Budapest for trying to change the bad into the good.
14. Children For Sale
This photograph is seriously heartbreaking. Can you imagine being a child, knowing your own mother is selling you? No matter the reasons, that would be the most terrible feeling to have, especially as a child when things already are skewed by not understanding the world. But I also could not imagine being that poor mother, so desperate that literally selling her children is the only solution she can find. You can tell she is embarrassed as she hides her face from the photographer. Taken in 1948 outside of Chicago, the pregnant mother and her husband had struggled for months to put food on the table and were facing eviction. The children (Lana, RaeAnn, Milton, and Sue Ellen Chalifoux) ranged in age from two to six, and decades later were interviewed, along with David, who was in his mother’s womb when this photo was taken and also did not grow up with his birth parents. All of the children had found homes elsewhere, but they did not all have happy childhoods due to abuse and other problems. In the interview, Sue Ellen Chalifoux said of her birth mother that, “she needs to be burning in hell”.
13. Electrocuting an Elephant
I don’t know whose insane idea this was, but it is utterly wrong on so many levels. Not surprisingly, it happened long ago when animal cruelty is not the hot-button issue it is today. This poor elephant’s name was Topsy, and she was executed via electrocution in 1903. You may be shocked to learn that her execution was not carried out in some far-off land, but right here in North America at a Coney Island amusement park. A former circus elephant, Topsy had gotten the reputation of being a “bad” elephant because she had killed a drunken spectator who had burnt her trunk with his cigar. Then, there were multiple incidents at the amusement park, many of which could have been attributed to her drunk handler. Because of these things, the owners of the park announced they would hang her and charge admission to watch. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepped in, and it ended up that Topsy was killed by cyanide and the copper-clad sandals connected to electric lines that were strapped to her feet. When she was electrocuted, smoke rose from her feet and she fell to the ground, at which point a noose was tightened around her neck. It is sickening to imagine, and I am so thankful we live in a time that, while imperfect, sees a lot less of that sort of thing happening.
12. Poison-Proof Perambulator
Here we see just how afraid people were of impending war. A mother wearing a gas mask pushes her baby along the sidewalk in a perambulator equipped with a ventilator and a window. It was meant to be precautionary and a protective measure of course, but instead looks like something out of a horror film. The unique carriage was designed by a resident of Hextable, Kent in England in the late 1930’s. In the event of an air raid, this contraption was supposed to protect the enclosed child from poisonous gases. In 1938 when this photo was taken, this was a well-founded fear. This style of stroller never really took off, useful as it may be during war time, but the thought it is that perhaps it too closely resembled a coffin and scared people away. I know that sitting safely in my office a continent away and almost a century later, it certainly raised the hairs on my neck! But more than anything, I feel for the people across the world living in a time when they felt that they could not even stroll their own neighborhood without going to these lengths.
11. Clown of Death
It does not matter if it is the year 1900 or the year 2000; clowns will never make sick children feel better. In fact, I am willing to bet that only will they not make sick children (or anyone of any age) feel better, but that they will actually make them feel worse. This picture should be a testament to that. Yes, it is extra creepy since it is a vintage, black and white photo and as we know, that element adds a touch of spookiness, but it would look frightening even in bright color. The poor children in this photo do not look too comforted, anyway, having been wheeled and carried outside to be entertained (ahem, freaked out) by a clown who looks like he just got done eating one of their friends. Nowadays, I think people may just be more sensitive (and don’t get me wrong, that leads to its own set of problems), and would not send a clown of death to a children’s hospital.
10. Primitive Ambulances
Ok, maybe “primitive” is a bit dramatic, but this very early form of the ambulance is definitely scary. People back then were doing the best they could with what they had, but the lack of medical knowledge, coupled with what looks like it would be a very slow ride to the hospital, is downright scary. Can you imagine if you had a true medical emergency? The “ambulance” would first have to get all the way to you, and then get you all the way to the hospital. Sure, horses are pretty fast, but not as fast as modern-day ambulances. Even those are not fast enough sometimes, when every second matters. I would not feel comforted knowing that this vehicle was my ride to the hospital if a loved one or I ever needed immediate medical attention. I wonder how many people bled out in the back of those things.
9. Public Execution
Something that once took place all over the world, and still does in some places, is the utterly terrifying public execution. It would be frightening enough to know you are being put to death, but to have a public spectacle made of it, with people cheering for your demise, is one of the worst ways I can think of to die. Killing people publicly shows a society’s lack of compassion, and their bloodlust. Yes, we still execute people today in a large percentage of countries on earth, but for the most part it is done more humanely (or, it is supposed to be). All appeals are exhausted, and a fair trial is given, at least in America. Many countries in the world still practice archaic methods of execution though, and do not make absolutely certain they have the right culprit first. Many still do it publicly, but it is a small comfort that in first-world countries, at least, that is no longer the case.
8. Babies in Cages
Yes, this was a thing, and not even an uncommon thing. In the 1930’s, mothers in London literally hung their babies out the window in cages. In an 1884 book by Dr. Luther Emmett, it was suggested that babies need to be “aired out” to “renew and purify the blood”. The idea for baby cages was not patented until the 1920’s, and did not take off until the 1930’s. Mothers living in apartments began to fashion cages to fit in their windows. No doubt they were doing what they honestly thought was best for their babies, but it makes me grateful to live in a time where the understanding of humans’ anatomy and physiology are much more understood (it also makes me wonder, though, what things we are doing now that our ancestors will think we are crazy for?). At least the cages were secure, and the intentions of the mothers were good. The phase died down in the second half of the century.
7. Post-Mortem Photography
In the Victorian era, post-mortem photography was quite popular. In some cases, especially with the high infant and children mortality rates, a post-mortem photograph was the only way to get a photo of the whole family together since that is the only time a person was photographed. This was a normal part of American and European grieving in the 19th and early 20th century. Before photography had been developed, the recently-deceased had been painted instead. This photo above shows the alive girl on the right holding the hand of her deceased little sister on the left, and it is only one of many post-mortem photographs available for viewing online. A lot of them are much creepier than this, and all I can think is that I am so glad photography has made it so that we are able to remember our loved ones after they pass. People may take their photography habits too far nowadays and post everything they eat or do, but it is much preferable to having so little photos that you need to make your children pose with their dead siblings. Of course, this practice may be used today when babies are stillborn or pass away after birth to memorialize them, since in that case it truly is the only pictures the parents will ever have of their child.
6. Wartime Goodbyes
War will always be a part of our lives unfortunately, in one way or another. And it is a huge part of human history. But as the times change, and as warfare changes with technological advances, certain aspects of it become easier. For example, in modern times, any person going off to war will not have a goodbye like the one pictured above. These people are saying goodbye to their lovers, possibly forever. There will be no email to say they got overseas safely, and there will be no Skype or FaceTime or phone calls. The women these men left behind had to wait weeks or months between letters, and between each one they had no idea if their boyfriends, husbands, and family members were even still alive. What a torturous goodbye that would be, having to wonder if this would be the last time you ever speak to the one you love. That is a terror unlike any other, and a terror that luckily, we do not have to experience anymore.
5. Women’s Rights
I don’t know about you, but I shudder to think of living in a time when women had no rights to do the most basic of things, like vote for who they wanted to lead their own country. Of course, these women knew nothing else, but thank goodness a brave number of them stood up for what is right and changed the laws in their favor. There will always be sexism in some capacity, and even today women are still fighting for equal pay and reproductive rights to their own bodies. Historically, some of the biggest issues that women had to fight for were the right to vote, the right to education, the right to hold public office, and even to work. A society that does not allow women to do those things (and really, any of the things that men do) does not sound like a society I would have any interest in being a part of.
4. Smoking Child Posing With A Chicken
I came across this photo and was quite dumbfounded. There is the obvious, that this poor child has been given a cigarette (you can tell it is even lit because it is smoking from the tip!), but he actually looks used to it, not at all surprised, confused, or even grossed out. That is saying something. This is only one of the many strange and unexplainable photos from history in which children are posed crazy like this, either with animals, objects, or doing dangerous activities. Nowadays, parents everywhere would crucify whoever this child belongs to, because you know this photo would end up on social media; in our time, there is nothing else to be done with photos other than show them off, and plenty of dumb people have gotten in trouble for showing off what they believed to be harmless pictures of their kids. Anyway, this boy’s parents would totally get Child Protective Services called on them, and the photo would probably go viral. Back whenever this was taken though, this was sadly probably not that uncommon. It is both scary, and freaking weird.
3. Foot Binding
This is just painful to even look at; I cannot imagine the pain incurred when actually binding one’s feet. But that was the reality for millions of young Chinese girls who wanted or were forced to have “lotus feet”. Bound feet were a status symbol in ancient China, and the practice did not begin to die out until the early 20th century when anti-foot binding campaigns impacted the tradition. So how exactly does one bind a foot? The answer is cringe-worthy, and proves that the practice belongs on this list of reasons that history was oh-so scary. Foot binding was usually done in winter when the feet were more likely to be numb. To bind a foot, a girl (between the ages of four and nine since the arches were not yet fully developed) would first soak her feet in herbs and animal blood. The toenails were cut back as far as possible, and then the toes were curled under and squeezed into the sole until broken. Then the arch was broken, and cotton bandages soaked in the same herbs and animal blood were wound repeatedly. As often as possible, the feet were unbound and bound again, and during this process the feet would be beaten to make the joints and broken bones more flexible. Eventually, the feet will become numb.
2. Proudly Posing With Preserved Heads
This man is Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley, who was a British Army officer. He served in New Zealand in the 1860’s, and acquired quite the collection of Mokomokai, which are Maori tattooed heads. His collection numbered 35. Robley was fascinated by the art of tattooing, and wrote books on Maori tattooing. He purchased the heads after returning home to England, and the fact that back then a person could purchase another person’s severed head is beyond comprehension. How gruesome! But Robley did, and he even offered to sell his collection to the New Zealand government in 1908, but they did not take him up on his offer. Instead, it was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, all except for the five “best” heads, which Robley kept for himself.
While there remain a few crazy cases of cannibalism to this day, it was much more prevalent in ancient tribal cultures. This photo shows an archaeological find from the ancient city of Herxheim, Germany. These artifacts are 7,000 years old, so of course we have no pictures of the actual cannibalistic sacrifices since there was no photography until quite recently in human history. Nevertheless, these artifacts are chilling because of what they tell us about some of our older ancestors. These remains tell the story of a culture that practiced cannibalism, as they show signs of flesh-stripping, which is known to be a preparation for cannibalism. That would be quite the terrifying time to live in, if you ask me.