Revisiting History in the Public Domain

Revisiting History in the Public Domain
Public domain photos, the easy window to our past, Photo Credit: Clem Onojeguho on Unsplash

We return with some of our favourite public domain photos that show the unsung side of human history

Nayanika Mukherjee
October 12 , 2019
07 Min Read

There’s a lot in history we never attempt to know or understand, until a striking photograph lands up on our table. Global stories and traditions that once held immense influence are now relegated to archives and dusty shelves, just waiting to be discovered. When required, the visual medium definitely churns up more curiosity about these forgotten cultures, people and events, than having to go through a long manuscript—even if it’s on your Kindle.

If you’re currently in the mood for a dive into history, here’s some of our favourite public domain photographs. These are images easily found on the internet, and (mostly!) free for all kinds of use. 


P.S. Sequels tend to recreate only a small portion of an original’s glory—but we feel this roundup is just as good as our first collection. What do you think? 

Hats & Boots is a famous roadside attraction in Seattle. Of course, you can't control multipurpose use!

This giant cowboy hat now sits next to an equally large pair of boots in a Seattle park. Originally, though, it was built in the 1950s as part of a cowboy-themed gas station called ‘Premium Tex’. The hat’s smoothly curved sides seem to be the perfect ramp for skateboarders, as skating legend Matt Hensley so deftly demonstrated in 1992. The iconic picture for Transworld Skateboarding was taken by Daniel Harold Stuart, whose note at the top adds a touch of mischief: the duo drove 24 hours to Seattle, were kicked out of the spot in ten minutes, but promptly drove back and started again!

Overlooking ‘Mirror Lake’ and its vistas, from ‘Triumphal Bridge’ —both temporary creations for the ExpositionA glittering panorama of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Held from May 1 to November 2 in 1901, this world’s fair was lit up by Thomas A. Edison Inc. (yes, that Edison) after the advent of the alternating current in the United States. The fair drew around eight million visitors as a showcase of commercial joys (including the then newly-developed X-ray) and western solidarity, and was built for a whopping $211 million (2018 equivalent).

The metallic glow of Saturn’s majestic rings

NASA calls In the Shadow of Saturn one of its finest images. It was captured by Cassini in 2006, as the spacecraft drifted in the planet’s shadow for 12 hours. The glowing rim is caused by the eclipsed Sun, while the night side of Saturn is partly illuminated by reflected light from its own rings. “Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the above image,” said NASA. “Visible in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus, and the outermost ring visible above.” P.S. Recognise that pale blue dot on the left, just above the main rings?The culture of nautch performances became popular during the late Mughal era and the early years of the British East India Company. Nautch girls pose for the camera in 1922. These ‘dancing girls’ were not courtesans, nor were they the devotional performers like south India’s devadasis. Instead, they were entertainers for men, women and children from all backgrounds, performing in varied social events like parties, weddings, and christenings. Their style would be a mix of classical and folk dances, and wandering troops (we suspect the girls in the photo belonged to one) would often deliver impromptu roadside shows or at ones at homes of richer patrons, such as Mughal courts, British officer bungalows, palaces of nawabs and zamindar homes. Their accompanying music? Strains from the sarangi, and an upbeat tempo from manjeeras, dholaks and the tabla.

A NASA employee turns wind vanes in the 16-feet tunnel amid rainbow hues

The sixteen-feet wind tunnel at Langley Research Centre, which at 102 years old, is NASA’s oldest field centre and the birthplace of the space program. While space exploration is the glamourous part we all love to remember, did you know that only one-third of the programs here are dedicated to it? The major focus is on aeronautics, and Langley is home to over 40 wind tunnels used for safety, efficiency and performance testing. A star player in its past? The Apollo Lunar Module, which took man to the moon. The centre was last open for public visits in 2018, but you can check out a virtual tour here. 

The Raj Bhavan Banquet Hall, enveloped in morning light from almost a century ago

The vast, chandeliered Banquet Hall of Government House in Kolkata, 1922. With its Doric columns, mahogany furniture and swooping atmos, the space once entertained eminent guests like Queen Elizabeth. Now known as Raj Bhavan, it was once the Viceroy of India’s official residence, who was replaced by the Governor of West Bengal post 1947. Did you know India’s first elevator was also installed here?

Built in 1803, Government House was constructed under the supervision of the 1st Marquess Wellesley. Wanting a grand building to rule India from, the mansion was completed at a titanic sum of almost four million pounds in today’s numbers. Wellesley eventually lost his job for misusing East India Company funds on the project, but we have to say, the man’s indulgence left a lasting impression. 

This photo of the Truman Reconstruction was taken by Abbie Rowe, a White House photographer who, during the span of his career, covered five consecutive administrations

It’s commonly known that you can visit the White House on public tours. But if you think you’re seeing the same structures, hallways and walls inside as US presidents saw them over a 100 years ago, we’ve got some unfortunate news. The tours were first started by President Harry S. Truman in 1952, only after the White House Reconstruction, when the mansion was dismantled and rebuilt to remove dangerous structural flaws. The historic building was collapsing in on itself, and Truman thought it’d be a troublesome metaphor during a campaign year in 1948. Work thus began and went on for three years. The end result wasn’t perfect, with significant budget and amenities problems, but there’s one aspect that definitely bolstered spirits—employees and the First Family could finally enjoy air conditioning! 

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