Fascinating Historical Photos That Prove Humans Have Always Been A Little Strange

Humanity’s peculiarities are seemingly endless — and we’ve been hunting through the archives to prove the point. After hours of burning the midnight oil, we’ve managed to whittle hundreds of historical photos down to a selection that we think best capture the essential weirdness of Homo sapiens. Read on and marvel at just how strange we humans can be...

1. Michelin Men of music

The Michelin Man has to be one of the best-known brand mascots of all time. These ten costumed fellows are the members of an actual orchestra, and they’re engaged in a bit of promotion. Strangely they were publicizing a new radio show launched in 1924, the Michelin Hour. So their audience wouldn’t have been able to see those magnificent outfits. Go figure.

2. The three masketeers

It's hard to imagine a world where laying out to catch a tan didn't exist, but before 1923, bronzing your skin for aesthetic reasons wasn't a thing. And who do we have to thank for the invention of bronzing in the name of beauty? None other than the queen of fashion — Coco Chanel. She may not have meant to invent tanning, but pictures of her after a trip to the French Riviera sent people into a frenzy! Tanning to get that trademark Coco glow was firmly in place by the 1950s when this snap was taken, but protecting your face was still a must.

3. The final straw

Over in rural Ireland, the sight of these eerie masked men would have been far from unsettling. The Irish tradition of straw boys, although rarely practiced anymore, centered around one of the most joyful celebrations out there — weddings. The masked revelers would first steal hay to form their unusual headwear, before crashing the nuptials. Once accepted into the celebration, they'd dance with the bride and groom and entertain wedding-goers with songs, music, and jokes. 

4. Birdman

French daredevil and former paratrooper Leo Valentin earned his “Birdman” nickname by attempting to fly with a rudimentary set of wings tied to his back. Sadly, his ill-considered project came to an abrupt end in 1956, as did his life. A 100,000-strong crowd at an airshow in Liverpool, England, watched in horror as he leapt from a plane and crashed to the ground.

5. Isolation mask

Of course, we’ve had plenty of experience with mask-wearing in recent times. But not like this. Pictured is one Hugo Gernsbach, who wears an ominous-looking contraption he invented himself. His headgear wasn’t designed to combat infection, though. What the man craved was perfect silence, even if it meant having to breathe oxygen through a tube to achieve it. Well, they do say that silence is golden. But that golden? 

6. Airborne tennis

“Anyone for tennis?” It’s a question that takes on a whole new meaning in this colorized image from 1925. The daredevil players are Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger. Roy was a well-known and fearless stuntwoman: when she wasn’t playing tennis on a biplane’s top wing, she was dancing the Charleston on it or crossing it blindfolded. Unger was a minor movie actor probably best remembered for this single image.

7. Ankles galore

Just look at all those ankles – and don’t underestimate the thrill they would have caused in the more innocent times of the early 20th century. This offbeat photo, dated July 1930, actually records a prettiest ankle contest in Hounslow, an otherwise unremarkable suburb of London, England. But why was a police sergeant roped in as judge? Your guess is as good as ours.

8. Cow shoes

We found this intriguing image lurking in the Library of Congress archives. Enigmatically, the only description offered is “Prohibition Unit (Cow Shoes).” Speaking to The Evening Independent newspaper in 1922 state Prohibition enforcement director A.L. Allen described the purpose of these bizarre shoes. Booze smugglers would wear them to bamboozle any cops on their trail. The theory went that law officers would be thrown off the scent when they saw cattle instead of human prints.

9. Shaving machine or torture device?

A bit of history-ception is at play here. Although the three men appear to be genuinely terrified of the approaching shaving machine, they are, in fact, actors. The captured scene took place on the set of the never-aired 1960s show Brainwaves. Although the program didn't make it past the pilot episode, the premise was strong! Brainwaves would have seen bizarre 19th-century contraptions bring tested out on air. Unlike the show, it's clear to see why the shaver — that would supposedly shave multiple faces in a row — never took off! 

10. Fancy a grape?

Most people enjoy a grape or two, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. And it looks as though there is a surfeit of fruit here. This photo of Wilma Smith was taken at the McClure Vineyards in Burbank, California, in 1930. The occasion was the annual grape festival featuring the crowning of the Queen of the Vineyards. Looks like it was a bumper harvest that year – the crop was reportedly worth $50 million.

11. The Purves Dynasphere

It just seems utterly amazing that the Purves Dynasphere, seen here in 1932, never caught on as a form of mass transport. It was developed by Dr. John Purves, one of a long line of British inventors, if perhaps not the most successful. A Leonardo da Vinci drawing apparently inspired Purves’ vehicle, which could reach 30 mph. Perhaps its downfall came from the fact that to steer, you had to lean out of it. The Dynasphere wasn’t too great in the rain either.

12. Towing the Titanic

It’s not the actual Titanic, of course: that had sunk beneath the waves almost 70 years before a photographer captured this shot. In fact, it’s an image from the set of the movie Raise the Titanic, released in 1980. Here we see professional diver Courtney Brown hauling a 55-foot model of the ill-starred liner through the water. The replica cost a reported $5 million to build – the 1912 original only cost about $7.5 million.

13. Heavy metal-heads

Generally, metalheads are people who enjoy the music of heavy rock bands, such as Metallica. But in this case, we mean the term quite literally. Looking for all the world like newly arrived alien space travelers, these are, in fact, humans working as mechanics for TWA at La Guardia, New York in 1941. They’re wearing steel propeller covers on their heads. Perhaps it was just the easiest way to carry them. Or maybe they were having a laugh. We’ll go for the latter.

14. Indoor lightning

The nonchalance of this fellow reading his papers as manufactured lightning dances around him is something to behold. In fact, the man in this 1899 image is the famous Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. He’s sitting in his lab at Colorado Springs and the machine generating the dramatic sheets of electricity is his magnifying transmitter. Tesla is best remembered for his contributions to the transmission and harnessing of electricity.

15. A kangaroo in London

Normally, if your heart’s desire was to see a marsupial in London, you’d go to the zoo in Regent’s Park. But on this day in 1931, you’d only have had to visit Trafalgar Square in the heart of the city. Displaying a startling lack of originality, this animal is called Aussie. The photographer, who’s either trying to get a close-up or is squaring up for a few rounds with this boxing kangaroo, is called Fred Morley.

16. Sea-shoes

They’re called sea-shoes but inventor M. W. Hulton is actually showing off his handiwork on an inland waterway in 1962 – England’s Grand Union Canal. It runs for 137 miles northwards from London to the Midlands city of Birmingham. We’re doubtful that he navigated its entire length aboard his sea-shoes. Even with the help of the “duckfoot propellers” that drove them.

17. Cats make the best babysitters

Most people who grew up with a cat will no doubt have a blurred memory of being scolded by their parents for trying to squash the family's beloved feline into an old baby outfit or doll's dress. Most people's memory will probably include some amount of angry meowing and a lot of claws, but this lucky tot got lucky — no scratches in sight and a paw-sitively perfect babysitter for the day. 

18. A bumpy ride

You’re looking at something called an Auto Thriller Highway, one of motoring’s most curious developments. The original caption declared, “Here's a humpy highway for meandering motorists,” and we can hardly better that. This roller coaster for cars was the creation of one Harry Rocks and was located in Los Angeles – where else? Adrenaline junkies of the 1920s could ride the highway’s 10-foot humps along its 800-yard length at speeds of up to a dizzying 40mph.

19. The Great Blondin

The Great Blondin, actually a Frenchman called Jean François Gravelet, was one of the most famous daredevils of his day. And perhaps his best-known stunt was crossing Niagara Falls on a 1,300-foot tightrope. Some 25,000 spectators, breath bated, watched this superlative feat in 1859. He accomplished the crossing in 23 minutes while wearing spangled pink tights and carrying a 50-pound balancing pole.

20. Masked man

Looking rather like some outré fetish gear, this leather mask and helmet combo was actually designed for flying. The man inside the weird headgear was the American Polar explorer Commander Richard Byrd. He wore the helmet to fly across the North Pole and back from the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in 1926. Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett completed the 1,360-mile journey in just over 15 hours.

21. Give the pig a beer!

With evident relish, this young porker sucks down the proffered bottle of beer. Whether the pig was actually of an age to be glugging an alcoholic beverage is open to question. In any case, these two men, seen here in late-19th century Mansfield, Ohio, seem happy enough to quench the animal’s thirst. Did the good citizens of Mansfield often indulge their livestock like this? Unfortunately, no further information is available.

22. Eyes only

This is a thoroughly creepy variation of the traditional beauty pageant format in 1930s Florida: the Miss Lovely Eyes contest. Eyes alone were displayed and appraised, and to make sure the judge's gaze didn’t stray to the mouth, nose, or any other facial feature, these special masks were compulsory. It lends a whole new perspective to the traditional hypnotist’s line, “Look into my eyes.”

23. A rush of blood to the head

Here’s Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly showing his disdain for superstition about Friday the 13th. It was on that date in October 1939 that he performed this bloodcurdling stunt 54 floors above the streets of Manhattan. He has a cup of coffee with him plus, of course, some donuts for dunking. Kelly was renowned for his stunts, which included a habit of sitting atop flagpoles sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. Sounds distinctly uncomfortable.

24. Bathing beauty

This bathing beauty is undergoing a complex procedure involving compressed air, a milk bath, and an 'Aphrodite mask' at the Helena Rubinstein salon in the late 1930s. A Polish-born entrepreneur, Rubinstein understood that beauty equaled big business. And after bursting onto the beauty scene by importing pots of mother’s secret “Krakow moisturizing cream,” it wasn't long before mystery moisturizer turned into big profits. Rubenstein began opening salons and marketing her unorthodox treatments. However bizarre it may have looked to the outside world, business was booming!

25. And the winner for most perfect… back 

Sally Rand was a showbiz whizz back in the 1920s and '30s, but things really took off for the starlet when she devised a risqué dance routine involving little more than her raw talent and some ostrich feathers. And in 1934, she was able to add 'The Most Perfect Back Of Chicago' to her list of achievements. Thankfully, the peculiar contraption probing her back doesn't seem to be as painful as it looks.

26. One hippopower

You’ve heard of horsepower but how about hippopower? One hippopower to be exact. In 1923 an unknown gent hitched his carriage to a young hippo for reasons lost to the mists of time. Perhaps his horse was sick. Or maybe he just had a thing about that noble animal, the hippopotamus. We’d hazard a guess that man and hippo may well have a circus connection.

27. Smoke, smoke, smoking

This novelty gadget was expressly designed to allow the user to get through an entire pack of smokes in one go. Rather than a health warning, this gizmo should probably come with a death certificate. The woman in the photo is model Frances Richards. She wouldn’t have kept her looks for long if she carried on like that.

28. Niagara barrel

Here’s Annie Edson Taylor whose proudest achievement came in 1901, when she became the first complete idiot — sorry, brave heroine, to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell the tale. And indeed Ms. Taylor poses proudly with the very barrel – once filled with pickles – in question. It seems an unlikely feat for a 63-year-old schoolteacher, but as we always say never underestimate educators in their 60s.

29. Spring shoes

These two demure-looking young women probably wouldn’t attract more than a conventionally admiring comment. Except for their shoes. Kangru-Spring-Shus to be precise. To be honest, they look like a certain recipe for broken ankles to us. But what do we know? After all, we’ve never actually worn spring shoes. And we have no plans to do so. But each to her own.

30. A pool full of oranges

We've all heard of apple bobbing, but we'd bet on the fact that not many people will have heard of a competition that sees contestants swim their way through three tons of oranges. For some perspective, that's the equivalent of 6,000 pounds. Or, a baby blue whale! Here we see the 1932 champion, Jessie Darnley, proudly brandishing her trophy after taking home the title of 'Miss Anaheim'. Juices all around!

31. The motorwheel

This idiosyncratic contrivance can just about be classed as a motorcycle although it’s actually called a Motorwheel. Certainly it’s a motorbike like none we’ve ever seen before, operating on a metal rail set inside a tire. The man at the wheel is a Swiss engineer, Monsieur Gerder. It’s 1931 and he’s seen here in the French city of Arles, on a trip across France to Spain. We wonder if he made it...

32. Shedding the pounds

Wacky weight-loss gadgets are still with us today, but this one dates from the early 20th century. Gripped in the gadget’s embrace is movie actress Raquel Torres, who doesn’t look to us as if she especially needs to shed any pounds. In any case, we’re happy to count ourselves as fans of the Mexican-American star. That’s because she appeared in the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic Duck Soup.

33. Toss that caber

A peculiarly Scottish sport, tossing the caber involves hurling a tree trunk as far as you can using nothing more than brute force. It’s a competitive staple of Highland Games events wherever the Scots have settled – which is just about everywhere. This 1935 shot held in the Austrian Archives shows us a bekilted Private McDonald practicing his toss to the evident gratification of his platoon.

34. Mom, pop and baby too

This image of a peculiar variety of bicycle comes from the 1890s. Actually, it’s got three wheels, so we should probably call it a tricycle. It’s clearly a family affair with mom and dad up front and baby bringing up the rear. What worries us is, how would the doting parents know if their child had fallen out of its carriage? They might have carried on for miles before they noticed. And one final point: how did they get on and off?

35. Modesty preserver

Getting changed at the beach into warm, dry clothing after a bracing sea swim while preserving your modesty is a perennial problem. But here’s an ingenious answer. The Skreenette bathing tent. As these two demonstrated in 1929 you can strip off in public without the danger of prying eyes seeing what they shouldn’t. What a relief!

36. Off to the stratosphere in a basket 

Ever dreamed of rocketing a pesky sibling to the ends of the Earth? Well, it seems not much has changed since 1933, when this picture was taken. Auguste Piccard, a Swiss physicist, was the brains behind the first-ever pressurized cabin reaching the Earth's stratosphere on May 27, 1931. And two years on from the record-breaking trip that aimed to prove Einstein's theory of relativity, Auguste was making preparations to shoot his brother up where the air is clear. 

37. Painted stockings

These strange goings-on were happening in Croydon, a suburb of London, England. The women with the brushes are actually painting the legs of their customers to make it appear that they’re wearing stockings. It sounds more than a little bonkers but it was all because of wartime shortages. The year is 1941 and Britain had already been at war for two years. Stockings were not to be had at any price.

38. The Churchill Egg

This weird gizmo, rather reminiscent of a medieval torture chamber, was apparently made with Sir Winston Churchill in mind. The idea was that he could clamber into it when flying around the world in unpressurized aircraft. Dubbed the Churchill Egg, sadly there’s no evidence that the great man ever actually graced it. Indeed, the International Churchill Society website is unequivocal. It says, “Churchill never used the pod designed for his use.”

39. Underwater wedding 

Perhaps proof that just because you can do something, it doesn't mean that you should, this couple pushed their love to the limit with an underwater wedding. Judging by the image, no one was wearing an oxygen mask, so it was either the world's quickest or most disjointed ceremony! The one plus — the bride must have saved a fortune on her gown.

40. There’s something in my eye

You’d have a hard time guessing which president’s eye this is, rendered giant-size on the face of Mount Rushmore. Luckily, the original caption from 1954 tips us the wink. It’s Thomas Jefferson. Why this fellow is “hanging on for dear life,” as the caption has it, is not revealed. So you’ll have to use your own imagination if you want to fill that gap in the historical record.

41. Direction-change chaos

We generally think of Sweden as a sober and well-organized country. But their customary composure was utterly shattered one ill-fated day in 1967, a day jaw-achingly dubbed Högertrafikomläggningen. That roughly translates as “right-hand traffic diversion.” Literally overnight, the Swedes were transferred to driving on the right so as to match their European neighbors. Having always driven on the left side of the road up until then, the result was complete and utter pandemonium!