Old photographs can help us grasp human ways of life, long ago supplanted by new ways of thinking, acting and living in the modern world.
Photographs don’t judge; they just depict a truth about how things were at one point in time. At least we can hope for a certain honesty from pictures that predate Photoshop.
As they say, a photograph is worth a thousand words, but it still takes a few words to capture a deeper meaning in the images we see, especially when they are far removed in time and place from our own experiences.
I’ve been looking through collections of “historical” photographs compiled in various galleries on the Internet. I especially like the one posted by writer Justina Bakutyte on the “Bored Panda” website. She calls the gallery “40 Must-See Photos from the Past.”
I learned from these photos that a woman’s one-piece bathing suit was once a scandal that could get you arrested, while a two-piece suit was the norm. The first photo on this page shows the scandalous one-piece worn by Annette Kellerman in 1907.
It didn’t take much digging to learn how Kellerman became a competitive swimmer as a child, after she had difficulty walking. Kellerman later became a Vaudeville performer, developing her aquatic artistry as a water spirit.
Kellerman gained world attention when she was arrested for indecent exposure after spurning the cumbersome bathing dress, which was the norm at the time. Instead, she appeared on Revere Beach in Massachusetts in a one-piece, form-fitting bathing suit. Her action sparked other women to redefine their gender, according to an article in “The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in 20th Century Australia.”
Another water-related photo shows Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The feat took place on Oct. 24, 1901, as shown in the photo.
According to History.com, one man had survived a jump from the falls on the Canadian side in 1829. But Taylor wanted to follow 72 years later with something that would gain even more attention. She strapped herself into five-foot-long pickle barrel padded on the inside. After a wild 20-minute ride, she came to shore battered and bruised. She soon became famous, but she never earned the fortune she had hoped for.
I was also intrigued by a photo of a young girl wearing a breathing apparatus while lying in a hospital bed. She is smiling as she gazes at a small pool next to the bed, in which four baby ducks are swimming. The caption says “Animals being used as part of medical therapy, 1956.”
An article by registered nurse Lorraine Ernst in “Annals of Longterm Care” says Florence Nightingale was one of the first people to recognize the therapeutic benefits of animals in medical treatment.
While attending Washington State University in 1975, I had the honor of interviewing the late Dr. Leo Bustad, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. We talked about the important role that animals can play in the recovery of patients and how pets can lead to a healthier physical and mental condition among the aging.
Two years later, Bustad co-founded the Delta Society, which studied and promoted the human-animal bond. In 1989, the society developed a certification program, which allows animals to visit hospitals and nursing homes to aid patients with their companionship.
As I noted earlier, every picture has a story. I may never find out the identity of the little girl or the benefits of her therapy, but it is interesting to uncover the connections. For me, Lorraine Ernst’s article added information about new discoveries in animal-assisted therapy and what Dr. Bustad helped to bring about.
Other galleries of historical photos can be found on the Flickr page of the U.S. National Archives. One gallery I found especially interesting was “History Through the Camera Lens,” featuring photos of renowned photographers Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine and Edward Steichen.
Another worthwhile gallery, posted on the Buzzlamp website, is made up of 116 historical photos and documents, including a letter written to Adolph Hitler from Mahatma Gandhi in 1939. While this gallery is not especially focused on a war theme, many of the images are not for faint of heart.