Here at Old Photo Archive, we're often asked the simple question, "Why didn't people smile in old photographs?" Indeed, it's something we ask ourselves as we work through the thousands of photos in our archives. We noticed that every photo until 1900 is devoid of emotion; however, soon after people began exhibiting wide, full smiles in both portraits and candid shots. So we just had to know why.
Debunking the Myths
We had always just assumed we knew the answer to why people didn't smile, and you probably did too! The top reasons people assume are these, but we found none of them is true!
- Life was hard. It is indeed true that people lacked the creature comforts we had today, and beyond this, they had limited health care and died much, much younger than we do today. That said, we see in their letters and writings that they had no less happiness or joy in life than we do today (and perhaps more!). So the winters may have been harsher for them and the daily grind more taxing, but it wasn't the source of their lack of smiling.
- People had bad teeth. We are spoiled by having easy access to dentists and orthodontists these days, but people in the late 1800s certainly did not. So many of them did indeed have "bad" teeth in terms of how they looked. That said, because no one actually had "good" teeth then, there would have been no stigma associated with craggly, dingy teeth. So that's not it.
- Long exposure times. We ourselves had always simply assumed that the lack of smiling was due to the long exposure times for cameras of the day. It would have been VERY painful to sit for an hour or more, but our research shows that exposure times were no more than 4-5 seconds even for the early photos. So that's not it either...
Uncovering the Real Reason
After some research, we uncovered the real reason: People thought smiling made them look silly. This is a carry-over from early portraiture in oil paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, people viewed their portrait as being the one thing that would truly capture who they were for centuries to come; as such, they wanted to convey a sense of moral certainty. The smile thus became unfashionable in portraiture and was thought to be used only for those filled with wine -- or the entertainment.
This carried over in to photography in in the U.S. in the 1860s-1890s as studios popped up in small towns across the nation. These portraits were expensive, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and so the subjects approached them as if they were having a full-scale oil painting completed. Even Mark Twain, the popular writer and humorist, encouraged this. He shares in a letter to the Sacramento Daily Union:
“A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”
So what changed around 1900?
Here Come the Smiles!
By 1877 the photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge had solved an ongoing problem of a one-shot camera with his series of photographs entitled The Horse In Motion.
This technique paved the way for cheaper, more efficient cameras that photographers could use in-studio and people could take with them wherever they went. No longer would people have just once chance to get the perfect photo -- now they could take an entire series, often for cheaper than with the old technique.
By the early 1900s, we began to see smiles pop up in studio portraits and candids of all forms. While these didn't ever reach the level of the silly, posed selfie that we take today, people certainly stopped being self-conscious about sharing their happiness! And we're very happy for that!
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