Why People Didn't Smile in Old Time Photographs

Why Didn’t People Smile in Those Old-Time Photographs? Here are Seven Surprising Reasons

Contrary to popular belief, the very first photograph wasn’t taken by Thomas Edison. Actually, the first permanent photograph of a camera image was made in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce using a sliding wooden box camera made by Charles and Vincent  Chevalier in Paris. 

Then, in the 1830s, English scientist William Henry Fox Talbot independently invented a process to capture camera images using silver salts. Later on, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, a Scottish inventor, and employee of Thomas Edison, designed the Kinetograph Camera in 1891.

But, even though it was a huge breakthrough at the time, it certainly seems like none one was very (or at all) enthusiastic about being able to capture real-time images – something that had been impossible up until the first part of the nineteenth century. This begs an obvious question.

Why So Serious?

If you’ve ever looked through old-time photos, particularly those from the earliest days of photography, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of people don’t seem to be smiling. In fact, they often look quite serious or even stern. Fortunately, we have enough historical knowledge to explain the reasons for these somber expressions.

  1. Long Exposure Times

One of the main reasons people did not smile in early photographs is that the process of taking a photograph was a much more serious and formal event. Photography was a relatively new technology and was considered a luxury item, and people often dressed up in their best clothes for the occasion. They viewed having their picture taken as a serious and important event that required a formal and stoic pose. Smiling was often considered inappropriate and frivolous in such a context.

Plus, early cameras required long exposure times, which meant that people had to hold still for a long period of time while the photo was being taken. This was difficult to do, especially if it were to require a smile. Smiling for an extended period was also considered tiring and uncomfortable, which may have discouraged people from doing so.

  1. Cost to Capture a Moment

Early photography was very expensive, and people didn’t want to waste their money on photos that didn’t turn out well. They were afraid that if they smiled, they would end up with a photo that looked unnatural or even comical. Earnings of the day were meager compared to today and disposable income wasn’t really a thing. So, spending on something that was not necessary wouldn’t exactly put the head of the household (who was often the sole provider) in a good mood.

  1. Cultural Norms

The concept of personal image and beauty standards were different back then. A smile was not considered an attractive feature for a portrait. It was also believed that a smiling face made it difficult to capture the features of the subject’s face in detail. Thus, a serious and neutral expression was deemed to be the best representation of the person. In the 19th century, it was considered impolite to smile in public. This was especially true for women, who were expected to be demure and reserved.

  1. People Feared What They Didn’t Understand

People were also unfamiliar, thus scared of the photographic process. In the early days of photography, cameras were not as commonplace as they are today. In fact, they were so rare that people had to go to special “operation rooms” to have their photos taken. These rooms were often dark and cramped, and the cameras themselves were large and cumbersome. As a result, people often felt uneasy and uncomfortable when they were being photographed. This made it difficult for them to relax and smile, which is why so many early photographs show people with serious or even stern expressions.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that cameras became smaller and more portable. This made it possible for people to take photos in more relaxed settings, and as a result, people began to smile more in their photos. Today, of course, cameras are ubiquitous, and we take photos for granted. But it’s worth remembering that, for the first few decades of photography, it was a very different experience.

  1. Prune-ish Settings

Okay, say “Prunes!” 

This isn’t a joke. 

Today, it’s, “Say cheese.” But, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, photographers would tell their subjects to say “prunes” when posing for a photo. This was meant to make the subject’s mouth appear smaller, which was considered beautiful at the time. Small mouths were seen as a sign of demureness and refinement, which were considered desirable qualities for women in particular.

Of course, things have changed a lot since then. Today, large lips are often seen as a sign of beauty, and women are increasingly embracing their sexuality and expressing themselves more freely. It also demonstrates how beauty standards continue to evolve.

  1. Stoic Was THE Style of the Day

Smiling indicated madness. In the Victorian era, a wide smile was often seen as a sign of insanity. This was because of the social norms of the time, which dictated that people should have control over their emotions in public. This was an unsurprising thing, considering that this was also the era that labeled menstruating women as “hysterical.” If you were smiling widely back then, you were one of two things: either you were drunk, or you were mad. Both of these were very undesirable qualities at the time. Furthermore, photography took its cue from paintings, which were obviously a very different medium used for entirely different purposes.

The Victorians believed that emotions should be kept in check and that a wide smile was a sign of a lack of control. They also believed that madness was a sign of a weak mind and that people who smiled widely were therefore mentally unstable. This belief was based on the idea that people who were truly happy and content did not need to show it outwardly. They could simply be happy in their own skin, without the need to advertise it to the world.

  1. Time Marches On

As technology evolved, and cameras became more advanced, the process of taking a photograph became much quicker and more convenient. The advent of flash photography also allowed for better quality images to be captured in a shorter amount of time, making it easier for subjects to maintain a natural and relaxed smile.

Moreover, the changing cultural and social landscape also had an impact on the shift in expressions in photographs. The 1920s and 1930s were a period of great social change, with people embracing a more relaxed and carefree lifestyle. The trend towards smiling in photographs reflected this shift in cultural attitudes toward personal expression and the importance of happiness.

What Else Changed

Of course, all of these factors became obsolete over time. Around the 1920s and 1930s trends began to shift, and people started to smile more often. Here are a few things that happened to change how people appear in pictures:

  • Faster cameras: In the early 1900s, cameras were developed that could take photos in much less time. This meant that people no longer had to hold still for long periods of time, which made it easier to smile.
  • Falling cost of photography: The cost of photography continued to fall in the early 20th century. This made it more affordable for people to take photos, and they were more likely to take photos of themselves and their families.
  • Changing cultural norms: In the early 20th century, there was a shift away from the Victorian ideal of demureness. People steadily became more expressive and outgoing, and this was reflected in the way they posed for photos.

As a result of these factors, people began to smile more in photos. This trend continued throughout the 20th century. Today it is rare to see pictures of people who aren’t smiling and this is why it’s so very odd to see photos of people who did not have a happy, cheerful, or fun expression.