31 Rare Historical Photos You Had No Idea Even Existed

Published November 2, 2016
Updated July 22, 2020

These historical photographs finally provide a look at landmark events you didn't know were even photographed like this in the first place.

The Gettysburg Address

Rare Historical Photos Gettysburg
Abraham Lincoln (indicated by red arrow) arrives at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, not long before delivering his Gettysburg Address.Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

The Last Lifeboat Off The Titanic

Rare Historical Photos Titanic Rescue
A handful of surviving images depict the Titanic on the water, just days before the ship's tragic accident on April 15, 1912. Images of survivors' rescue — like the one here, depicting the last lifeboat evacuating the ship — are less common.Wikimedia Commons

The First Flight

Wright Brothers' First Flight
Orville and Wilbur Wright's historic 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina made them household names. As much as we revere that moment, how many of us have actually seen the image, snapped just seconds after takeoff, of history being made?John T. Daniels/Library of Congress

The Bomb, From The Ground

Nagasaki Explosion
Popular photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings often capture the event from an aerial perspective.

While this perspective makes for a powerful image, it obviously doesn't capture the blasts' terrifying scope to those on the ground at the time. This is what makes this photo of the atomic cloud rising over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 so devastating. The blast pictured here would soon kill at least 75,000 people.
Hiromichi Matsuda/Wikimedia Commons

Neil Armstrong Just After The Moon Landing

Neil Armstrong After Moon Landing
As historic as the July 21, 1969 moonwalk was, most popular images of the event stop and start at footage of Armstrong or crewmate Buzz Aldrin positioned on the lunar surface.

Here, we see a lesser known photo worth popularizing: Armstrong back in the module just after making history, the whole story written right there across his face.
Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr./NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The First Photograph Ever Taken

First Photo Ever Taken
In this one-of-a-kind case, the photo itself is the event. This otherwise unremarkable view from the window of a Burgundy, France estate is in fact the oldest surviving, permanent photograph in existence.

Taken in 1826 or 1827 by French photography pioneer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, this image used a unique process known as heliography. First, Niépce set his camera to an eight-hour exposure over a pewter plate coated with asphalt. He then wiped away the areas of the asphalt not hardened by sunlight to reveal a primitive photograph.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce/Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln On The Battlefield

Lincoln Standing On Battlefield
Our collective image of Abraham Lincoln likely comes from either painted portraits or a small group of studio shots by photographer Matthew Brady.

To see Lincoln out in the real world and towering over his peers is another thing altogether. Pictured: Lincoln stands on the battlefield at Antietam, Maryland with Allan Pinkerton (the famed military intelligence operative who essentially invented the Secret Service, left) and Major General John A. McClernand (right) on October 3, 1862.
Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

Tesla And His Transmitter

Tesla's Transmitter
Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla is now revered for a host of accomplishments in electrical engineering. But none of his accomplishments capture his "mad scientist" appeal quite like the crackling bolts of his magnifying transmitter, an advanced version of his famed Tesla coil used for the wireless transmission of electrical energy.

Pictured: Tesla sits near his firing transmitter in his Colorado Springs laboratory, 1899.

Dickenson V. Alley/Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

Samurai In Action

Rare Historical Photos Samurai
Much like the knights of Europe, the samurai of Japan belong to another time — and one which we likely do not associate with the camera given their popular depictions in paintings, illustrations, and woodcuts.

Yet the samurai, long after their medieval rise, persisted into the late 19th century, by which time the camera could document them. This photo was taken in 1860, around 15 years before the reformist government abolished this warrior class.
Wikimedia Commons

The Assassination Of Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Kennedy Assassination
The Zapruder film famously documents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but the image taken just after the fatal shooting of Robert F. Kennedy is less known.

Kneeling beside Kennedy on June 5, 1968 is a waiter named Juan Romero, who happened to be shaking the senator's hand when assassin Sirhan Sirhan fired the fatal bullets.
Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times/Gatehouse Media/Wikimedia

D-Day, Through The Soldiers' Eyes

D Day Boat
The camera was very common by World War II, meaning that plenty of photos of the Allied forces' June 6, 1944 Normandy invasion exist. Still, many of these photos provide but a distant survey of the battle scene.

This photo (entitled "Into the Jaws of Death"), on the other hand, brings the event to life by offering the perspective of Allied soldiers about to storm the beaches and make history.
Robert F. Sargent/National Archives and Records Administration

The Battle Of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battlefield
As with D-Day and WWII, the Battle of Gettysburg carries a certain weight to many Americans — even to those who know almost nothing else about the Civil War.

Fought in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania between July 1 and July 3, 1863, the battle saw nearly 8,000 people killed and turned the Civil War in favor of the Union. All totaled, Gettysburg was the costliest battle ever fought in the U.S. Partially titled "A harvest of death," this image begins to reveal that cost.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan/Library of Congress

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein Captured
On December 13, 2003, nine months after the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American forces captured deposed leader Saddam Hussein in a farmhouse near Tikrit. While the war generated heated debate at home, this capture marked a decisive moment in the Iraq War and the larger War on Terror.

Images of a haggard Hussein post-capture made headlines around the world, but the photos of the actual capture largely didn't. Here, we see just that: Iraqi-native-turned-American-translator known only as Samir holds Hussein to the ground just after U.S. forces discovered him.
U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

The Eiffel Tower Under Construction

Eiffel Tower Under Construction
Because the image of the Eiffel Tower is so iconic, there's a jarring visual clang in seeing it unfinished.

This July 1888 photo reveals a rare glimpse of the tower under construction, 15 months into the process and still nine months away from completion.
Wikimedia Commons

Unboxing The Statue Of Liberty

Unboxing The Statue Of Liberty
Much like the Eiffel Tower, it's hard to think of the Statue of Liberty as anything other than a timeless colossus. It was of course a statue built by human hands, and one which France shipped to the States in 214 crates and had an assembly cost of about $10 million (adjusted for inflation).

On June 17, 1885, those crates reached the U.S. and the great unboxing began. Pictured: The statue's face not long after removal from its crate.
Wikimedia Commons

Pearl Harbor (Like You've Never Seen It Before)

Pearl Harbor Explosions
Many photos of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor exist, but none illuminate the moment quite like this one.

While other images of exploding ships provide a sense of the chaos, this image, with stunned soldiers in the foreground, brings the true scale and anarchy of that destruction into focus.
U.S. Navy/National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

The San Francisco Earthquake Of 1906

San Francisco Earthquake
With at least hundreds more deaths than Pearl Harbor, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 remains the second deadliest disaster in U.S. history. The quake began on the morning of April 18, and by the time it ended, the quake had leveled about 90 percent of the city, left 225,000 homeless, and at least 3,000 dead.

Yet amid that pandemonium, at least one photographer managed to capture a stark, evocative image that reveals the $10 billion destruction.
Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress

Vincent Van Gogh's Actual Portrait

Van Gogh Photo Portrait
By 1873, the camera was an established enough invention that it wasn't unheard of for even a 19-year-old art dealer like Vincent van Gogh to have been photographed.

Not only is this just one of two confirmed photographs of the famous painter (and the only one of him post childhood), this photo provides a jarring look at the actual visage of a man we tend only to envision by way of his famous self-portraits.
Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln's Funeral

Abraham Lincoln's Funeral
On April 15, 1865 — just six days after the surrender at Appomattox effectively ended the Civil War — John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Four days later, on April 19, the nation mourned as funeral marchers made their way down Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress

The Shot That Started World War I

Gavrilo Princip Being Arrested
The (overly) simple version of the story goes that World War I began when Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Here, we can see police arrest the man who "started it all" just after the assassination. (Some scholars say that this photo actually depicts the arrest of an immediate bystander initially mistaken for Princip.)
Wikimedia Commons

Hitler Declares War On The U.S.

Germany Declares War
It's not unbelievable that this moment would be photographed, but it is strange that it's not more widely known due to what it depicts and the fact that it provides the portrait of Nazi pageantry you'd think would be burned into our collective memory.

Indeed, with bold colors and an enormous Reichsadler, it was a scene of spectacle when Hitler addressed the Reichstag at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin on December 11, 1941 to declare war on the U.S.
German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Hanging Of The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Lincoln Conspirators Hanged
John Wilkes Booth was working with nearly ten other conspirators around the time he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. These Confederate sympathizers planned to revive the Confederacy by assassinating Lincoln as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

Unlike Booth, they failed to follow through. Like Booth, they were eventually captured and killed. On July 7, 1865, four of the plotters — Mary E. Surratt, Lewis T. Powell, David E. Herold, and George A. Atzerodt — died at the end of a rope in Washington, D.C.
Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

Billy The Kid, In Person With His Posse

Billy The Kid
This photograph — only discovered in 2010 and subject to much debate over its authenticity — is one of only two known images of Billy the Kid (the other technically being a ferrotype, and a rough one at that, from 1879 or 1880).

The 1878 photo here, however, presents Billy the Kid (left) in relative clarity, playing croquet with his posse, the Regulators, in New Mexico.
Wikimedia Commons

The Surrender That Ended The Civil War

Civil War Surrender
While historians can argue about when exactly the Civil War ended, the widely accepted narrative states that it came to a close on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Pictured: Soldiers wait outside the court house in Appomattox as the higher-ups work out the official terms of surrender.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan/Library of Congress

The Armenian Genocide

Armenian Genocide Victims
It's not so much that the Armenian genocide wasn't photographed, it's that the event itself has been so marginalized by history books that any image is, for most, a revelation. While as many as 1.5 million Armenians perished in Turkey (almost as great as the percentage of Jews who would die in Nazi-controlled Europe) between 1915 and 1922, much of the world has forgotten.

Of the images that have survived, many portray Armenians being rounded up for execution. Fewer show the brutal reality of those executions. Pictured: An Armenian woman kneels beside her dead child in Aleppo, Syria, circa 1915-1919.
American Committee for Relief in the Near East/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Edison Unveils The Phonograph

Thomas Edison With Phonograph
In many ways, the technological advancements pioneered by Thomas Edison and other prominent 19th century inventors gave birth to modernity. Because of Edison inventions like the light bulb, the motion picture camera, and the phonograph, people now had entirely new ways to record and communicate the human experience for both ourselves and the generations that followed.

In spite of our familiarity with Edison's inventions, it's rare to see the genesis of those inventions themselves. Pictured: Thomas Edison unveils his phonograph in Washington, D.C. on April 18, 1878.
Levin C. Handy/Library of Congress

The Wounded Knee Massacre

Wounded Knee Burial
Among the countless clashes between U.S. settlers and Native Americans, the Wounded Knee Massacre stands apart to this day.

On December 29, 1890, U.S. troops followed orders to disarm Native Americans they'd forcibly relocated to a camp near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. Accounts vary, but most say a scuffle started after one Lakota refused to give up his rifle. In the end, more than 400 troops killed as many as 300 Lakota men, women, and children, and wounded another 50. The regiment then buried the Lakota in a mass grave (pictured).
Northwestern Photo Co./Library of Congress

The Battle Of Little Bighorn

Little Bighorn
Like Wounded Knee, the Battle of Little Bighorn retains a special place in the history of settlers and Native Americans. Fought near the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana on June 25 and 26, 1876, this U.S. defeat at the hands of the Lakota and accompanying tribes became famous for Custer's Last Stand, the ill-fated charge of troops led by George Custer, resulting in his death and the death of most of his men.

Pictured: Bones at the site of Custer's Last Stand in the aftermath of the battle.
Stanley J. Morrow/Library of Congress

The Klondike Gold Rush

Klondike Gold Rush
The Klondike Gold Rush is such a rough-and-tumble chapter in U.S. history that it's strange to think that cameras actually documented it. Yet of the approximately 300,000 people who flocked to northwestern Canada in search of gold between 1896 and 1899, a few owned and brought cameras.

However scarce, these images provide a glimpse into a period when dysentery and malaria were the norm and food was so scarce that salt was worth its weight in gold. Pictured: Miners at work, circa 1899.
John McLain/Wikimedia Commons

The California Gold Rush

Gold Panning
Even more remarkable than the images from the Klondike Gold Rush are those of the famed California Gold Rush 50 years before.

This mass migration likewise saw about 300,000 settlers head to California in a move that would shape American history far more than you'd think. Indeed, if not for the influx of people, the accompanying development of San Francisco, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the state of California itself might very well look a lot different. Pictured: A prospector pans for gold in the American River of California's Sacramento Valley, circa 1850.
L. C. McClure/Wikimedia Commons

Completion Of The Transcontinental Railroad

Transcontinental Railroad Completion
In today's world of interstate highways, instant communication, and drone delivery, it's almost impossible to understand the earth-shaking significance of the day workers completed America's first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869 (pictured).

It's likewise hard to believe that a moment so antiquated was actually captured — with terrific clarity, no less — on film.

Andrew J. Russell/Yale University Libraries/Wikimedia Commons

Today, with a multi-megapixel camera in every pocket and more than 350 million images uploaded to Facebook alone each day, fewer and fewer events escape visual capture and thus a certain immortality.

Thus it's now easy to forget that the photograph, first invented in 1826 or 1827, has only existed for the most recent three percent of recorded history, and only been in regular use for an even smaller fraction of that time.

Still, there are plenty of post-1826 historical events that many of us probably don't realize were actually photographed.

These are the landmark events that either happened so long ago, so unexpectedly, or amid such chaos that you'd never think someone was on hand with a camera to capture the moment -- and often in remarkably stunning detail and quality.

Then there are the special few events whose photographs are indeed widely known, yet perhaps the most important images are the ones that are, for some reason, relatively lesser known.

Either way, the rare historical photos above provide a chance to put an image to the pivotal moments you know well but probably haven't actually seen. From the Gettysburg Address to the rescue of the Titanic to the capture of Saddam Hussein, you know these events. Now see them brought to life.

Fascinated by these rare historical photos? Next, immerse yourself in 50 influential photographs that changed our world. Then, check out famous historical images that were actually photoshopped.

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.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Kuroski, John. "31 Rare Historical Photos You Had No Idea Even Existed." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 2, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/rare-historical-photos. Accessed May 29, 2024.