The Fascinating Reason Why People Didn’t Smile In Old Photographs

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why people never used to smile in old photos then have no fear; it turns out they had plenty of reasons to keep a straight face.

There are many things about times gone past that have got us wondering. Why did top hats ever fade out of fashion? How are horses and carriages no longer the preferred mode of transport? Where did those big poofy dresses go and why do we now have to wait until a rare ball until we get to wear one? There are so many things that many of us wish we could bring back, but it seems as though there’s one that is gone for good: the fact that people didn’t use to smile in old photographs.

Thousands of us take photos every day. This could be to commemorate a moment with your friends, a night on the town, or those days where you’re just really feeling your look and want to show the world. Whatever the case, most of us have our signature pose. Prefer to smile in your snaps? It turns out this wasn’t always the fashion. In fact, there are plenty of reasons that people used to keep a straight face.

The early days

Believe it or not, but it turns out that cameras have been around since as early as the 5th century BCE.

It wasn’t until the 11th century CE that the first camera made its way to the world, but it was unlike anything that any of us know today. There was no way to capture an image.

Instead, it projected the picture onto another surface. The catch? It was upside down. However, people could quickly trace around the picture and create their own version of the photograph. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the camera was small enough to take around and capture early photos on the go.

The first prototypes

Have you ever wondered about the history of printed photography? Many of us pull out our cell phones and snap hundreds of photos every day.

However, it wasn’t always so easy to get a picture. The first photographic process was known as heliography.

It was invented by Nicéphore Niépce back in 1824, and it took several days to process each photo. After a few years, Nicéphore enlisted the help of a fellow photography enthusiast, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. The pair worked together until they finally had a new way to process photographs in 1832. Finally, it took just one day to process photos.

Making huge leaps

Louis continued to work with photographs for years after Nicéphore passed away, and each new technique led to shorter development times.

However, he wasn’t alone. People around the world learned that people were onto a way to create lasting photographs, and they all wanted a slice of the action.

By the 1850s, emulsion plates were in full swing. Cameras could now focus and produce crisper and more accurate photos. Just two decades later, there was another massive leap in photography. Richard Maddox invented a way to use fry plates that meant people could store everything they needed to print photos without having to make a wet mixture every time.

Changing the world

Photography was once reserved for the elite of the world. That was until the late-1800s when Kodak led the way in photography.

All of a sudden, people could take up to 100 photos on a film before sending it off to the factory to have them printed into real-life photos.

It was everything people had dreamed about for so long. Until then, most people had to pose for portraits and wait as someone painted them for hours on end. It could take several days of sitting in the same position and a skilled artist until someone had their image saved forever.

Blurring the lines

Before the name Kodak dominated the world, people were greeted to the Brownie camera that was released in 1900. It was just $1, and people could take photos whenever they liked.

However, the professionals had already had years of practice taking pictures. It started to wean out the need to pose for painted portraits.

That didn’t mean they were gone for good. Photographers wanted to take inspiration from paintings by capturing the stern looks of their subjects while painters worked hard to try and create the crispness and detail that came with a photograph. It wasn’t long before the lines were blurred between the two media.

The high and mighty

So why were people still so afraid to smile in front of the camera? Painters used to avoid people who smiled as they were thought to be inappropriate.

Photographs were no exception. Photos were considered to be formal and reserved for the elite. It used to cost a lot of money to have your picture taken.

To top it off, most of the people in the photos were thought to be some of the most influential people in the world at the time. It’s believed that most of them wanted their power and importance to be clear in the photos, and thought that a straight face was the only way to get the results.

A long way to go

While the world was once way ahead of its time and leading the way to a new future with the industrial revolutions and the rise of machines, there were still some things that needed a little work.

Healthcare and dental work were two of the things on the list. Medicine was still in its early days, with many professionals using archaic techniques to treat patients.

This meant that toothpaste and toothbrushes were mostly out the window. Instead, people opted for homemade options, if they even bothered to brush their teeth at all. Most people were left with rotting or missing teeth as a result.

Hiding their teeth

Most of us now know the importance of brushing our teeth twice a day and heading the dentist to make sure that our gnashers are in tip-top condition. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the beginning of the 19th century.

Many experts believe that people chose to keep their mouths shut when having their photo taken as they didn’t want to show off their unsightly teeth.

This even extended into the real world as many would avoid talking or smiling at people in the street. As dental care started to improve, some people felt more comfortable having their smile captured and printed for the rest of the world to see.

A lot of money

Although many of us can now take as many photos as we like – or at least as many as our phone with keep – it turns out that things were once very different.

People had to pay top dollar if they wanted to have a photograph. Paintings weren’t much different and is one of the many reasons that most people’s faces have been lost to history.

Only a select few ever posed in front of a camera, with even fewer having the ability to take a photo at home. This means that most of the people we get to see traveled to photography studios where they posed in front of pre-arranged backgrounds.

Going against nature

For this reason, most people in the early days of photography only ever had one or two photos taken.

There were no repeats or a chance to sit for another snap. It was one chance, and you’re out.

This meant that people often wanted to make sure their photo was as perfect as could be, even if it did mean looking stern. To top it off, there have been many studies that show our brains don’t find it natural to smile in front of a camera. In fact, most people have to be told to smile until it becomes a natural instinct.

Part of a trend

There have been many photography trends over the years. The early 2000s were filled with duck pouts as people wanted their lips to look as big and plump as possible.

Tilting the camera to one side is another pose that many of us have perfected while photo editing software has become more and more mainstream over the years.

While many people have taken a leaf out of people like Kylie Jenner’s book and tried to make their lips as big as possible over the years, that hasn’t always been the way. Yes, while it might have seen like a simpler time, there were still fashion trends to follow.

The smaller, the better

Many people were instructed to have smaller lips to make sure that their photo was as fashion-forward as they could make it.

It’s always been the job of the photographer to make sure they capture the perfect moment, and this was even more important when people only had a few chances to get things right.

Perhaps you’ve been told to “say cheese” over the years to show off your teeth in a natural-looking smile? It turns out that people in Victorian times were actually told to “say prunes” to help keep their lips small. As well as fitting into fashion, this was also the more acceptable expression for people at the time.

The life of the party

It can be easy to think that people in olden times weren’t living their best lives. After all, they weren’t smiling all the time in their photographs.

With crippling illnesses, poverty, overcrowded cities, and low health standards all being everyday worries, it might not be hard to understand that people had a lot on their mind.

However, Abraham Lincoln was known for his good humor, and even let the odd smile shine through in his photos. Queen Victoria is another who looks pretty stern in most of her photos. So how was she also known for loving a good time and laughing along with other people in the palace?

Keeping up appearances

While Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria might have been known for their humor in private, it was to remain just that: private. They weren’t the only ones who wanted to keep their personalities to themselves and their close friends.

Before the days of social media and gossip magazines, there was a massive divide between the rich and famous and the rest of the world.

Photographs were considered to be public property. Most people wanted to maintain their untouchable image as there was a difference between how they were presented and the performance they gave to the public compared to their real personalities.

A magical invention

There have been many new inventions that have scared people before they have become a part of our everyday lives. Just take the likes of the x-ray machine.

While it is now a crucial part of modern medicine, it was once a strange machine that somehow took a photo of your insides.

What about the airplane? There was no way that people should be able to fly through the air in a machine, yet millions of us now jet all around the world each year. Some things take time to become a part of the world, and it looked as though the camera and photography was no exception. It was just like witchcraft.

Feeling the fear

It turns out there was a good reason that many people were afraid of cameras and photography studios. Professor Christina Kotchemidova has spent years researching everything about the early days of photography and how the art has changed over the years.

She discovered the studios were regularly referred to as “operating rooms.”

As if that wasn’t enough, the photographers would tell their subjects they needed to pose in front of the “instruments.” Christina believed that if you look closely enough, you can see the fear in many people’s eyes as they had no idea if the snapshot would hurt or what would happen to them as a result.

Remembering the passed

Photos once meant something very different compared to the snaps that many of us are used to today.

Not only were they to capture the important people in the world, but they were also there to help people remember their loved ones – even after they had passed away.

Yes, plenty of Victorian people would pose for photos with relatives after they had passed away. Some of these snaps were simple. Photographers would take snapshots of people as they lay in their casket or after their postmortem before they were buried. Of course, it was tough to make these people smile.

Posing with the passed

Other photos had a lot more to them before photographers could capture the moment.

Some artists specialized in painting rosy cheeks and open eyes onto developed pictures, so it looked as though someone was still alive, but they couldn’t paint on smiles as it might have given the game away.

Other people took things a little further. “Hidden mother” photos featured moms behind blankets as they held their baby up for a photo. Other people would sit next to their passed relatives or have them on their lap for the picture. The best bit? Some people invested in a special stand to keep people upright.

Look alive

Have you wondered why people often look a lot more alive in photos taken after their death than people would today?

That’s all thanks to the fact that most people passed away very quickly and didn’t have time to deteriorate before they were posed in front of the camera.

To top it off, people were often a lot younger, too. Medicine has come a long way over the years, meaning people are living longer than ever. Other people believe that mourning has come a long way as most now want their final living days to be remembered compared to the first few days after their passing.

A timeless record

Many of us now think of photos as a way to capture a moment in time. How will anyone else know that you’ve gone on vacation if you don’t post a few hundred snaps to social media?

Plus, you might run the risk of everyone else missing how much fun you are having with your friends if you don’t upload at least a selfie or two.

However, things weren’t always this way. Many people in old photographs thought their portraits served as a timeless record rather than a moment in time. If you couldn’t afford a painting, then you might have the money for a photograph instead.

A serious moment

There are many reasons that we take photos, with one of the main for many being the fact that we have something to show our future families or our friends around the world.

The same went for people back in the early days of photography, but for different reasons.

People wanted to make sure they looked as perfect as possible. After all, it was a serious moment that could be the only thing they got to leave behind for their future relatives. That meant there were no strange poses, distracting outfits, or smiles in sight. Everything had to be as clear as possible.

Plenty of time

It takes just a second to take a photo nowadays – even if you sometimes have to take a ton of snaps to make sure you get the perfect one. Could you imagine posing for hours just to get one photo?

That was the reality for people in old photographs. They would have to pose for up to 15 minutes before they got the shot.

This was nothing compared to the initial eight hours that were needed to take some of the earliest photos in history. This was because photographers needed enough sunlight to get the shot. Thankfully, they realized that people would never be able to pose for so long.

Keeping still

Although people soon learned to sit or stand still for up to 15 minutes to make sure they got the photo they needed, most people would get cramp in their face after just a few minutes of holding a smile.

Most people would hold a neutral pose instead.

This also meant that any movement in the photo would make it blurry, which is why some now look blurred. As if that wasn’t enough, some people used props to help them keep the pose. They have been likened to microphone stands but allowed people to rest their arms or heads to stay still.

Negative connotations

Back in the 19th century, having a huge grin came with many associations – and they weren’t good. Many people thought that if you had no control of your smile or emotions, then you must have lost your mind.

Asylums were at their height, and there have been many tales about people being locked away for all kinds of reasons, even if it was being too happy.

To top it off, people were highly influenced by paintings. Anyone smiling in a portrait had often been drinking or were being outrageous. People thought that smiling in photos could be enough to recreate these feelings.

Breaking the rules

Leonardo da Vinci broke all the rules when he painted the smiling Mona Lisa. People weren’t supposed to look happy in paintings, yet one of the greatest artists of all time had painted a woman with the expression.

What was happening? There have been many studies, and it seems as though it was Leonardo himself that painted the smile.

However, Leonardo wasn’t alone. Artist Houdon sculpted a smile on Voltaire to capture a whole new look. They broke the rules, but most people never wanted to recreate the look. Many photographers were adamant their subjects needed to be as serious as possible.

The first of millions

Believe it or not, but selfies aren’t a new invention that has taken over social media. In fact, the first selfie is thought to date back to 1838 as Robert Cornelius posed with his camera.

As well as being an amateur photographer, Robert was also a keen chemist.

He was eager to prove that some of the older methods for developing photos could be used to take pictures. He took the cap off the lens before Robert ran in front of the camera for one minute and then replaced the cap. He didn’t smile in the snap, but Robert did name it as “The first light Picture ever taken.”

Changing the world

So what changed and made people start smiling in photographs? It’s thought that was the blurring of photos and art as they came together. For so many years, photos could only be taken by professionals in photography studios.

However, the Brownie camera meant that people could take pictures of their everyday lives.

It was first advertised as a camera for children to help them snap memories. It wasn’t long before the Brownie became incredibly popular among people of all ages. After all, they could capture their moments whenever they liked. It was unlike anything before and changed the rules of photography.

Candid moments

Formal photography no longer dominated the world as amateurs from across the planet started to put their skills to the test and take their own photographs.

Sure, there were still the professionals, but they were about to learn a thing or two from others.

People were capturing candid moments thanks to the fact the cameras no longer needed 15 minutes to snap each picture and working instantly instead. This meant there were soon a ton of photos of people smiling and living their everyday lives. They looked less like the madmen they had thought for so many years and more like average people.

Rewriting the rules

Once again, paintings and photography were about to use the other’s ideas. Paintings soon started to feature smiling people as artists loved the candid nature and spontaneity that came from photographs.

People started smiling in pictures at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the next 15 years or so, the same changes could be seen in painted images. By the time World War II had come and gone, it seemed as though the shift from not smiling to showing off a toothy grin had taken over. Most people now wanted to look happy in their photos and rid themselves of the icy stares from the years before.

A pleasant experience

Although the Brownie camera was the one to initiate the change, the company, Kodak, soon took over the world. It quickly became the biggest name in photography.

They started by running their own photography studios, but they wanted to create different images to the ones that people were so used to seeing.

The journals told photographers to make their studios feel as “enjoyable” as possible. The company hopes that talking about the latest fashions in photos would help people to feel more relaxed. Plus, Kodak suggested using toys to help keep children amused or anything else that made subjects feel happier and made them smile.

All in the smile

It wasn’t long before the company published their catchphrase: “you press the button, we do the rest,” and that’s just what people started to do.

It shifted people’s views as they could relax and enjoy taking photos rather than worrying so much about what they looked like or keeping still to make sure that nothing was blurry.

The campaigns showed smiling people standing in front of the camera as people captured the enjoyable moments in their lives. Kodak hoped that their commercials would catch on, and people would soon start to smile in photos without having to explain why subjects needed to look like they were having a good time.

Traveling the world

It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that Kodak’s plans started to come to life. More people could afford to head on vacation, and it was easier than ever to get around the world.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw one form of transport take form: the train.

The industrial revolution meant that the steam train was now the most popular form of transport. As well as heading to distant lands, people could also travel to the beach for the first time. The wealthy were also greeted to steamboats that enabled them to travel across the planet. This was Kodak’s perfect moment to help vacationers capture these new adventures.

Leading the way

It appears as though women led the way when it came to smiling in photographs. Researchers studied US high school yearbooks from 1905 to 2013.

They discovered that lip curvature continued to increase throughout the decades. They took the average photo from both men and women each year to find the results.

In 1905, most people had stern looks. By 2013, nearly everyone was showing off a toothy grin. As if that wasn’t enough, their study showed that women, on average, increased their smile each year compared to men. In fact, women were the first in the research to show their teeth in their photos.

On the up

Now, it seems as though most of us prefer to smile in photos. Kodak really did achieve their goal. There are still plenty of photo trends taking over the world with each new year.

Social media means that we can share our snaps with the rest of the world in an instant. Vacation snaps or “take my hand” photos have become hugely popular around the globe.

To top it off, while blurry photos were once avoided at all cost and meant posing for huge lengths of time, some people prefer these uploads. Yes, the advancement of cameras means that people can now be more creative with their snaps than ever.

ADVERTISEMENT