One question I frequently get asked about my site, The Art of Manliness, is “Where do you find all those cool vintage photographs for your blog posts?”
While I’ll occasionally purchase a cool retro stock photo, most of the vintage images on The Art of Manliness were completely free thanks to the wonders of the public domain.
When an intellectual or creative work–whether a book, a video, or a photo–enters the public domain, it means the property right of the original creator has expired. That means anybody–you, me, your Aunt Judy–can use that work without permission without paying a dime.
Public domain law varies from country to country and the rules that determine when a work enters the public domain have been changing here in the U.S. during the past few decades. Generally, works (including images) published before 1923 are in the public domain. There are some other factors that determine public domain status, but I won’t get into that. Instead, I thought it would be more helpful to round up a list of some of the best and easiest resources I use to quickly find awesome public domain vintage photographs.
What can you do with the images you find on these sites? Anything your little vintage-loving heart desires. Use them in a blog post, make greeting cards out of them, re-mix them in a collage, hang them in your room…the possibilities are endless!
Founded in 1934, the U.S. National Archives is charged with curating and preserving “Federal records judged to have continuing value.” While court and legislative records make up the bulk of the National Archives, over 25 million photographs are included in the collection as well.
And because all the images in the National Archives were created by the federal government, they’re automatically in the public domain and free to use without restrictions.
Before, you’d have to trek all the way to Washington, D.C. to access their massive collection of photos, but thanks to the miracle of technology, you can view them while sitting comfortably in your chair at home.
Just head over to the U.S. National Archives’ Flickr page to browse their collection. They’ve organized their photos into sets for easy finding. Here are a few of my favorites:
In addition to the National Archives, the U.S. Library of Congress is another fantastic resource for free historical photographs and images. Just like the National Archives, you can browse the Library of Congress’ photo collection on Flickr. Some highlights:
1930s-40s In Color (This by far my favorite collection. So many great and arresting images.)
I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve undoubtedly used Wikipedia, the Free Online Encyclopedia at one time or another. But have you ever used Wikipedia’s super-useful cousin, Wikicommons? To keep Wikipedia free, Wikipedia articles use free images that are either in the public domain or have limited restrictions under Creative Commons licenses. Wikicommons is the giant media repository that volunteer Wikipedia editors go to for the free images and videos for their articles.
But the beauty of Wikicommons is that these photos are available for use outside of Wikipedia as well. Just check the license status of the image before you use it. If it’s public domain, you don’t need to do anything. However, if the image is licensed under Creative Commons you may need to give attribution to the source.
The best way to find historical images in Wikicommons is to just run a search within the site. For example, let’s say I needed a cool vintage image of a boxer for a blog post I wrote about boxing. All I need to do is run a search for “boxing history” within Wikicommons, and presto! I’m presented with several great results, like this pic of Joe Louis.