As we’ve all been told, the eyes are the window to the soul, and a picture is worth a thousand words. Visual mediums, suffice to say, are mighty powerful. One photograph is able to capture an entire zeitgeist; a painting you know nothing about can move you to tears.
Of course, some images don’t always register without the proper historical annotations to put them in context. A picture of a man pouring liquid into a pool, while an odd sight, might not seem overtly hateful until you take a closer look. A photo of a baby in a cage hanging off a building ledge might cause visceral horror—until you learn the reasoning behind it.
Before you ask, no, those aren’t hypotheticals. Here are eight incredible historical photos that don’t tell the whole story (along with the context you need to understand their historical significance).
The Strange Tale of the Baby Cage
When you think about “caring for a child,” the first thing to come to mind probably isn’t “put the baby in a cage.” To be fair, though, you probably weren’t a mother during the late 19th century.
Around this time, the concept of “airing” your baby started showing up in parenting books. “Airing” was—well, exactly what it sounds like.
The idea was introduced by pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt. In his 1894 book The Care and Feeding of Children, he wrote:
“Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food. … The appetite is improved, the digestion is better, the cheeks become red, and all signs of health are seen. … The child should be dressed with bonnet and light coat as if for the street and placed in its crib or carriage, which should stand a few feet from the window. All the windows are then thrown wide open, but the doors closed to prevent draughts. Screens are unnecessary.”
Somehow, that turned into this:
The belief was that babies’ exposure to cold (the temperature) would help boost their immunity to colds (the kind that make your nose run).
That was, of course, ridiculous, but it wasn’t Holt’s worst idea. The pediatrician also argued in favor of eugenics “by birth, not by death,” which is slightly better than the alternative. He also told parents that “babies under six months should never be played with,” since playtime would cause infants to become “nervous and irritable, [to] sleep badly, and [to[ suffer from indigestion.”
The St. Augustine Pool Picture
On June 18, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. and two associates planned a swim-in for the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida.
In an attempt to intimidate the protesters and force them out, the owner of the hotel, James Brock, poured hydrochloric acid into the water, shouting, “I’m cleaning the pool!”
Protesters J.T. Johnson and Al Lingo spoke to NPR in 2014 about the experience, and they remember Brock “losing it.”
“The girls, they were most frightened, and we moved to the center of the pool,” Lingo recalled.
“I tried to calm the gang down,” Johnson said. “I knew that there was too much water for that acid to do anything. When they dragged us out in bathing suits and they carried us out to the jail, they wouldn’t feed me because they said I didn’t have on any clothes.”
“I said, ‘Well, that’s the way you locked me up!’ But all of the news media were there, because somehow I guess they’d gotten word that something was going to happen at that pool that day. And I think that’s when President [Lyndon B.] Johnson got the message.”
The hostility of Brock’s act, captured on film, was a milestone. The Civil Rights Act was approved the next day, after an 83-day filibuster in the U.S. Senate. While the St. Augustine pool protest was one of many moments that contributed to the law’s passage, it was one of the most gripping, visual displays of the horrors of segregation.
Kids For Sale
When you first see this picture, you might be inclined to laugh. It looks like a joke.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a hoax. This photo, taken in 1948, shows a real Chicago mother selling her children. The woman, Lucille Chalifoux, had been recently evicted from her apartment, and her husband, Ray Chalifoux, had lost his job as a coal truck driver.
In 2013, The New York Post reported on the fate of the children:
“Lana (top left) was likely adopted and died of cancer in 1998; RaeAnn (top right) was sold for $2 along with her brother Milton (bottom left) to an abusive family. Sue Ellen (bottom right) was adopted. David, inside mother Lucille Chalifoux’s womb in this picture, was adopted as well. Lucille would have four more daughters; ‘She kept them; she didn’t keep us,’ David says.”
Sue Ellen, who was 2 years old when the picture was taken in Chicago, died of lung disease in 2013. A few months before her death, she gave an interview, writing her responses.
Of her birth mother, she wrote, “She needs to be burning in hell.”
We’d love to tell you that this article gets less depressing from this point, but we’re about to talk about electrocuted elephants. No, seriously.
The Elephant Electrocution
Remember that time Thomas Edison elected to electrocute an innocent animal to make a point? We didn’t, either. It’s not the sort of thing that they teach you in school—mainly because it’s not true.
At some point, some internet writer started the rumor that Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant named Topsy in an attempt to discredit alternating current (AC). Edison was in a vicious battle with his rival, Tesla, whose Westinghouse AC electrical system competed directly with Edison’s direct current (DC) system.
Was Edison really involved? According to the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, a research center at the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, “The answer is an emphatic ‘no.'”
Topsy the elephant was electrocuted publicly at Luna Park on Coney Island in January 1903, and her death was certainly cruel. She was instructed to lift each foot into a copper sandal to facilitate the electrocution (which the SPCA approved at the time, since electrocution was seen as a humane form of execution).
“Edison is not mentioned in any of the numerous contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the killing of Topsy,” the Rutgers page reads. “Nor is there any evidence that officials of Luna Park, the SPCA, or the Brooklyn Illuminating Co. consulted him on the case. It is also unlikely that he was personally involved in producing the film ‘Electrocuting an Elephant,’ even though the title bears his name.
“Although he was the president of the Edison Manufacturing Co., which, among other things, oversaw the film company, day-to-day operations were in the hands of the vice president and general manager William E. Gilmore.”
Edison’s company did electrocute an elephant, but Topsy wasn’t a random elephant, either; she’d previously mortally injured a spectator at a circus event, which prompted her owners to have her euthanized. It’s a sad, strange story, but it’s not a great example of Thomas Edison acting like an evil genius.
The Budapest Smile Club
Alright, so this picture already looks like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, but what is actually going on?
Apparently, after World War I, Budapest, Hungary, was in the throes of a suicide epidemic. (In a clear case of faulty reasoning, the media apparently attributed some of these to a popular song, “Gloomy Sunday.”)
In October 1937, the Sunday Times Perth explained how some folks were choosing to combat the problem:
“Now, however, a ‘Smile Club’ has been inaugurated to counteract the suicide craze. It was originally begun more as a joke by Professor Jeno and a hypnotist named Binczo, but somehow it caught on. The organisers have now a regular school and guarantee to teach the Roosevelt smile, the Mona Liza [sic] smile, the Clark Gable smile, the Dick Powell smile, the Loretta Young Smile, and various other types, the rates varying according to the difficulties encountered.”
The founder also had a supervillain-level goal:
“Jeno says the methods employed at his school, aided by better business conditions in Budapest are making smiling popular, and before long, it is hoped that the name of Budapest will be changed to the City of Smiles.”
We don’t think we’re exaggerating here: If your city is called the “City of Smiles,” you’re living in a horror movie.
Unfortunately, there’s limited documentation to support this story. The Dutch illustrated magazine Het Leven ran photos of the Smile Club efforts in 1937, but the paper also ran a number of sensationalized articles. The “Smile Club” might have been a hoax—and even if it was a real movement, it probably wasn’t extremely popular.
The Gas Mask Mommy
During World War II, the Germans let loose on Britain. Throughout the 1940–1941 campaign dubbed the Blitz (German for “lightning”), Britain was bombed relentlessly by Germany—an affair that went on for eight months, killing 43,000 civilians.
In anticipation of German planes dropping gas bombs, British officials handed out millions of gas masks to their citizens. The Women’s Voluntary Services for Air Raid Precautions (WVS) trained civilians to use the 40 million gas masks the government produced, sized for all ages. That leaves us with plenty of gas-mask photos to share in the terror of the times.
Children wear gas masks as they play at the park. A dancer struts down the stairs wearing a helmet—and her gas mask. Families shop in them. And a mother walks with her baby in a gas-proof stroller wearing, you guessed it, her own gas mask.
Eerie, but we all know how this story ends.
Send in the Clowns (Or Don’t)
If you think today’s clowns are creepy, the video below may be too much. If you can handle some heebie-jeebies, you’ll see that the creepiest clowns live not now, but in black and white images from nearly a century ago.
Mokomakai and Some Guy
British Major-General Horatio Gordon (1840-1930) probably wouldn’t have posed for this photo if he could have guessed how we’d react generations later. (That’s him in the foreground—the one with a body.)
But it’s not what it looks like! Anyway, it was an age of imperialism, and it wouldn’t be fair to judge the guy based on today’s ethical standards. Here are the facts: Gordon, the 19th-century soldier/artist, served in New Zealand in the 19th century. He spent his downtime getting to know the indigenous Maori people. Specifically, he was fascinated by moko, the sacred face tattoos that denote high rank among the islanders.
Those faces behind Gordon in that photo are actually mokomakai, the sacred preserved heads of the Maori elite. Gordon collected them. Lots of Europeans did back then. Nevermind that their creators venerated the heads and kept them ceremonially locked away except during powerful religious or political rites.
Today, many of the displaced mokomakai are being repatriated to Maori communities. Despite what Indiana Jones might say, we’re realizing, they don’t belong in a museum.