Why Didn’t People Smile In Old Photos? Here’s Why.

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Old photos are a window to the past. From looking at old photos and how people looked back then, you can start to imagine what their lives were like. But have you ever noticed that most old photos feature people in formal wear looking annoyed or sometimes even downright miserable? 

There is a reason why people didn’t smile in old photos. In this article, we’ll delve into the annals of history to find out why people in the past seemed devoid of happiness, even in their wedding photos. 

If you’ve recently found a stack of old family portraits that need to be retouched and restored, contact Image Restoration today to get them looking brand-new again!

Why People Didn’t Smile In Early Photographs

The first photographs were taken in the 1820s, with developments coming throughout the rest of the century. However, in the days of early photography, people smiling when their photos were taken was practically unheard of. So why didn’t people smile in old photos?

While there’s no definite explanation on why people rarely smiled in old photographs, there have been several theories posited by history experts. Here are five likely causes why people didn’t smile in old photographs. 

1. Bad Teeth & Oral Hygiene

Since professional dentistry was still in its infancy during the late 19th century, it stands to reason that people back then didn’t have the best dental health and were likely missing teeth. This could mean that bad teeth was a common condition, and opening your mouth in social situations was frowned upon. However, this common explanation is relatively weak since a person can smile without having to show their bad teeth.

2. Long Exposure Times

Back then, taking pictures with cameras used to take forever due to the long exposure time. Getting your photograph taken would be like sitting for a painting, but worse. Subjects had to sit down for up to several hours and maintain the same expression the entire time, otherwise, the image would come out blurry. Understandably, a flat expression is much easier to maintain than a happy face. 

However, advancements in camera technology call this theory into question. By the 1850s, portrait cameras would have a considerably shorter exposure time. Cameras at the time would take up to one minute to take pictures, a marked improvement over early cameras.

3. Photography Is Serious Business

Nowadays, we can snap pictures anytime we want with smartphones. But back then, photo-taking was still very new and for the average person, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Some people even take photographs of their deceased family members in a trend called post-mortem photography.

Since it was seen as a passage to immortality and a record of how they looked in life for future generations, most people put on their “best faces” in vintage portraits. Smiles were seen as a temporary thing, and even professional humorist Mark Twain was dead-serious in his vintage portraits. In one of his books, Mark Twain even said that he didn’t want to go down in history forever with a foolish smile fixed forever on his face. 

4. Influence From Other Arts

Old paintings greatly influenced the early days of photography, because both arts “immortalize” people as they were at the time. Most people even thought the two were basically the same art form – which is understandable because they had to sit still for hours all the same. 

Similar to painted portraits, people see photographs as the most important document of their life. This means they had to put on their most serious faces to make sure they were remembered as great people by their descendants.

5. Cultural Factors

The last possible explanation is likely the most plausible one – and the simplest. Long ago, people simply looked down on smiles. In Victorian and Edwardian times, silly smiles were closely associated with madness, drunkenness, and lewdness. 

Since people didn’t want to be seen as a drunkard or a madman with a goofy grin for the rest of time, almost every single person decided to put on a serious face when it’s time to get their portraits taken.

This explanation becomes even more plausible when you take people from other cultures and social standings into account. Take this photo of an African-American man from 1860 and this photo of a Chinese man from 1904 who smiled broadly, for instance. 

It’s very likely that only people from Europe held the tradition of not smiling in photographs. Furthermore, they may be directed by their photographers to look as elegant as possible for the most important document in their lives.

When Did People Start To Smile In Photos?

After a century of people putting on the most serious of faces for a photograph, you might be wondering when exactly did people start to smile in images. How did the norm shift from dour faces to wide smiles and naturally happy faces? 

The answer is mainstream accessibility.

A Kodak Moment

George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera in 1888. This camera was considerably less complicated than any that came before it and was also bundled with an instruction manual. Eastman later doubled down on bringing photography to the general public with the Brownie camera in 1900. Geared for children and sold at an affordable $1, everyone could take black-and-white photographs easily. 

By placing cameras in the hands of amateurs and the mainstream public, Eastman started a seismic shift in how people took photos. With his camera’s extremely short exposure times and never-before-seen accessibility, photography was fundamentally changed. 

Before, getting your photograph taken was the moment. Families would dress up in their best clothes and put on their most serious faces so their descendants would remember them as great people. After the advent of mainstream cameras, you took photos to record a moment – capturing the little things that happen in life for you and your family to look back on in the future. 

Kodak’s advertising further implanted the idea of smiling in photos into the public consciousness. Their catchphrase of “you press the button, we do the rest” and ad campaigns featuring smiling people urged people to start smiling in their photos as well. The ads enforced the idea that smiling in a photograph was desirable, and people just started doing so after seeing Kodak’s advertisements without asking why.

Infectious Smiles

As the norms of amateur photography were cemented by Kodak, the notion of smiling in photographs started bleeding into formal photography. The art of portrait painting would start to take notes from its sister art form as well, resulting in people starting to smile in portraits painted in the late Edwardian years. In other words, smiling in photos became contagious. 

The popularity of motion pictures in the 1920s was also influential to the notion of smiling. By seeing the full range of human emotions represented on screen, it became popular to document all human emotions, not just the most dignified ones. 

After several decades of this shift, smiling in photographs became the norm by the time World War II rolled around.

Top Tips For A Bright Smile In Photos

Smiling might be the norm in photography nowadays, but nobody said it would be easy. Sometimes, our attempts at smiling for the camera might end up silly, awkward, or just downright terrifying. 

Despite being a natural thing for humans, smiling for cameras is something that you have to practice. So here are five tips to make sure you put on the best and shiniest smile today!

Relax Your Face And Jaw Muscles

Nothing ruins a smile like nerves. Your nervousness tends to show clearly on your face, making your picture look very awkward. A good tip to fix this is to consciously relax your face and jaw muscles. After a second or two of doing so, your smile will look more natural for the picture.

Think Happy Thoughts

The logic behind this tip is as simple as it gets. Happy thoughts make you happy. And when you’re happy, you smile. As you’re posing for the photograph, think about things that make you happy. Whether it’s your partner, puppies, or ice cream, hold that thought in your mind. These happy thoughts tend to manifest as natural smiles in photos.

Don’t Say “Cheese”

Despite being the go-to word for smiling when getting your picture taken, “cheese” doesn’t really get the best smiles. The long “e” sound tends to make smiles look too wide and unnatural. 

As an alternative, you can say the word “money”. Your lip movements will make a more natural smile when your picture is taken. Plus, the thought of money can also be a happy thought for some, putting even better smiles on their face.

Look Away Before The Shot

Smiling for the camera is one thing, holding it as the photographer prepares the shot is another. Sometimes your smile will start out nicely, but become more strained as the seconds pass – just like people in old times when they had to hold the same expression for minutes. So how do you get a photo taken without staring at the camera for an uncomfortable time?

It’s simple: just look away. When the photographer is preparing their shot, look at the ground or somewhere else. Then, when the photographer begins their countdown, look at the camera and smile like you just ran into your friend on the street. This way, your smile is fresh and natural because you don’t have to hold it for more than a couple of seconds.

Ask For A Joke

Few things cut through tension like a joke – good or bad. If you’re finding it hard to hold a happy face, ask your photographer to tell a joke just before snapping the photo. If it’s a good joke, then they’ll capture a genuine laugh from you. If it’s a bad joke, there’s bound to be a good laugh as well. Either way, the photographer’s going to capture a genuine expression!

How To Bring Back Memories From Years Long Past

Old photos are used to immortalize valuable memories and provide a window into how people lived back then. However, old photos aren’t immune to Father Time and will deteriorate over the years. Even if the images look dour and grim, they don’t have to be dirty and damaged. 

Here at Image Restoration Center, our team is more than ready to help you restore old family photos. With our team of historians and Photoshop wizards, we can make any old photo look brand-new in no time at all! 

Our services are very affordable as well – photo restorations start at $35 per photo, plus unlimited revisions. If you’re not 100% happy with our work, we also offer a full money-back guarantee.

Closing Thoughts

Despite looking miserable in photos, happiness did exist in the old days. But due to cultural influences and technical limitations, looking happy in images was either difficult or discouraged. Even people like Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria, in spite of their famous sense of humor, tend to look very serious in most of their images.

While you can’t put smiles on the faces of people in old photos, you can restore their pictures to look like they were taken mere days ago. Book our service today for fast and affordable photo restorations!


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