The Real Reason No One Smiled In Old Photographs

By S. Grant on Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Mark_Twain_by_GH_Jones,_1850_-_retouched
“There are some people who raise their upper lip so high… that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.” —St. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle, The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility, 1703

In A Nutshell

Over the years, many theories have popped up trying to explain why smiles are so rare in old photographs. The most popular ideas were that people didn’t want to show their bad teeth or, alternatively, that it was impractical to hold a smile during the long exposure times of early cameras. While these issues might have prevented some from grinning, the major reason for the serious looks was because most people thought smiling made them look ridiculous.

The Whole Bushel

At one point in time, it was largely believed that people didn’t smile in old photographs because they were hiding rotten or missing teeth, which were all too common prior to the days of modern dentistry. It turns out this wasn’t really true, since there were plenty of individuals who had fabulous chompers, yet still kept their mouths shut during pictures. Not to mention, humans can smile without revealing their teeth. Furthermore, bad teeth were so ordinary that they weren’t necessarily seen as unattractive. In fact, Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister of 1855, was considered devastatingly good-looking even though he was lacking several obvious teeth.

With the teeth theory busted, the next idea to become widely accepted was that no one smiled because cameras had incredibly long exposure times—anywhere from five minutes to more than 30. It would have been uncomfortable and perhaps impossible to force a grin and stay still for that amount of time. While that idea does make sense, it doesn’t explain why subjects were rarely depicted smiling in old paintings or why people didn’t start showing their pearly whites in the 1840s when exposure times for photos were under a minute.

Ultimately, the real reason folks didn’t smile was because they thought it made them look stupid. Most individuals simply didn’t want to be immortalized for all of history with a goofy grin on their faces. Mark Twain summed it up best when he said, “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.”

According to Nicholas Jeeves, who wrote an extensive article on the topic, by the 17th century “it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.”

Nowadays we smile in photos to show happiness or warmth, but back then it was viewed as the equivalent of duckface—a look no self-respecting Victorian would want recorded. As photography advanced and became more common, folks didn’t have to choose a single expression to serve as their memorial for the ages, which opened them up to showing a range of expressions in photos. Still, we can only imagine what they’d think of the hundreds of thousands of pics that are now taken every minute, complete with our foolish smirks, photobombs, and compromising selfies.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image: Mark Twain via Wiki Commons
The Public Domain Review: The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture
The Atlantic: Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Portraits?
19th Century Photographic Processes and Formats, by Lillian Wilson