Rapid thinning and velocity increase on major Greenland outlet glaciers during the last two decades may indicate that these glaciers became unstable as a consequence of the Jakobshavn effect (Hughes, 1986), with terminus retreat leading to increased discharge from the interior and consequent further thinning and retreat. To assess whether recent trends deviate from longer-term behavior, we measured glacier surface elevations and terminus positions for Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland, using historical photographs acquired in 1944, 1953, 1959, 1964 and 1985. These results were combined with data from historical records, aerial photographs, ground surveys, airborne laser altimetry and field mapping of lateral moraines and trimlines, to reconstruct the history of changes since the Little Ice Age (LIA). We identified three periods of rapid thinning since the LIA: 1902–13, 1930–59 and 1999–present. During the first half of the 20th century, the calving front appears to have been grounded and it started to float during the late 1940s. The south and north tributaries exhibit different behavior. For example, the north tributary was thinning between 1959 and 1985 during a period when the calving front was stationary and the south tributary was in balance. The record of intermittent thinning, combined with changes in ice-marginal extent and position of the calving front, together with changes in velocity, imply that the behavior of the lower parts of this glacier represents a complex ice-dynamical response to local climate forcings and interactions with drainage from the interior.