Why Didn’t Our Ancestors Smile in Old Photographs?

Posted September 27, 2017 by Amanda | 3 Comments

This may be a familiar sight to you – you have old photographs of your ancestors but no one is smiling! It’s not often you will find 19th century photographs of a smiling subject. While photographs provide us with a glimpse into who our ancestors were and what they looked like, don’t assume that no one is smiling because they were perpetually unhappy.

Why Didn't Our Ancestors Smile in Old Photographs?

c.1885 / Library of Congress

Long exposure times?

During the 19th century, getting your photo taken was not as quick as it is today. Long exposure times often required subjects to remain still for as long as 15 minutes and holding a smile for that long while remaining very still would have been a difficult task. Therefore, people would take on a neutral expression to limit the amount of movement, and thus, ensuring the photograph would come out clear. However, even as the photographic process improved and exposure times were reduced, people were still adverse to smile in photographs.

It was uncouth to smile

As strange as it may sound today, it was considered a social faux pas to smile in photographs. During this time, broad smiles were mostly associated images of drunks, the poor, and the lewd. It was considered silly and foolish to smile.

Since photography was still a new technology, and thus, very expensive, sitting to have your photograph taken was serious business. For some it was a once in a lifetime event and something that would be forever preserved in the future. Therefore, photographs adopted similar standards of portrait paintings in which nobody smiled. The photograph could quite possibly be the only photo of a person in their entire life, so people wanted to look their best.

Say cheese!

It wasn’t until Kodak introduced the first practical camera that it became acceptable to capture happier facial expressions. Once photographs became cheaper and more mainstream during the early 20th century, it was no longer unfashionable to smile in photographs. Instead of capturing an ideal perception of a person, photography became more about capturing a moment in time. So, as more and more people used cameras to capture fun, spontaneous moments, more and more people also began to smile.

Post written by Amanda

Amanda is the Social Media Coordinator at Geni. If you need any assistance, she will be happy to help!

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  • https://tallguysfree.com/ Tall Guys Free

    Incredibly interesting! Who knew?!

  • Georgie Howton

    Why didn’t people smile on old photographs?? BECAUSE they had lousy teeth, and had NO Dentists,

  • Danielle Marin

    that was an excellent read.