55 American History Photos And The Incredible True Stories Behind Them

Published October 12, 2021
Updated June 12, 2024

From the Civil War to the Space Race, these powerful pictures from American history show the past as it really happened.

Mlk I Have A Dream
First Nuclear Explosion
Lunch Atop A Skyscraper
55 American History Photos And The Incredible True Stories Behind Them
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The most iconic American images can stop you in your tracks. Sometimes, they offer snippets of joy — like California hippies dancing at a music festival. Other times, they show flashes of pain — like the flooded streets of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But every photo captures a moment in the great, unfolding quilt of American history. These 55 famous American history photos present a panoply of excitement, joy, tragedy, accomplishment, and anguish.

Famous American History Photos: 'Lunch Atop A Skyscraper'

Many of the most compelling photos from American history capture moments of joy, exaltation, or pride. Take the famous "Lunch Atop A Skyscraper," which depicts construction workers eating lunch 850 feet over New York City.

Iconic American History Photo

Getty ImagesConstruction workers relax on the beams of 30 Rockefeller Plaza as Central Park sprawls out in the background in an alternate shot from the same photo shoot.

The photo, taken during the construction of Rockefeller Center, was meant as a publicity stunt. But it sparked something else. Americans, gripped by the Great Depression, found joy in the cocky photo of 11 construction workers.

Today, the names of most of the men have been lost. But their image endures in the iconic photo.

Iconic American Images: Emmett Till

However, many of the most striking American history photos have a darker side. Photos of Emmett Till, for example, represent a horrifying chapter in American history.

Emmett Till And Mother

Library of CongressEmmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, circa 1950.

While visiting family in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, 14-year-old Till had an encounter with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Bryant claimed — though she later admitted she'd lied — that Till had harassed her at her family's grocery store.

As a result, Bryant's husband and his half-brother went after Till. They kidnapped, beat, and brutally killed him.

Till's mother later insisted on having an open-casket funeral so that the world could see what had happened. Photos of the 14-year-old's mutilated body shocked many Americans and helped spark the civil rights movement. Indeed, it remains one of the most powerful photos in American history.

This collection of the most famous photos in American history includes pictures like that — photographs that shook the country, like the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg or the 1970 shooting at Kent State — and images that present quieter truths about American life.

Above, look through photos of naturalist John Muir sitting on a rock, enjoying nature. Or see the pride on the faces of women pilots during World War II. Marvel in the moon-landing, or mourn the Tulsa Massacre.

In all, the 55 photos above present a diverse, striking look at American life. They're photos of joy and despair. These iconic American images show the country's soaring triumphs and its devastating failures.

But every photo captures something unique about American history. Within each image is a common thread, a common story that is still unspooling to this day.

After looking through these American history photos, check out these 55 weird photos and their surprising backstories. Or, take a moment to explore 25 of the most powerful photos in history.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "55 American History Photos And The Incredible True Stories Behind Them." AllThatsInteresting.com, October 12, 2021, https://allthatsinteresting.com/american-history-photos. Accessed June 24, 2024.