I was recently asked why in photographs taken in 1800s people do not smile. It is sometimes difficult to interpret the motivations of people in the past, but I have a few ideas why we see so many serious faces staring back at us from photographs.
Long Exposure Times for Photographs
When daguerreotypes were first introduced in France in 1839 the exposure time for larger photographic plates could be up to 15 minutes, sometimes longer. In just a couple of years improvements in camera lenses and the chemicals used to expose the images shortened the exposure times to a minute or less, but to get clear images people had to sit still. Photographers even had head rests that held sitters heads in place when they were having portraits made. Having to sit perfectly still for seconds probably discouraged smiling.
Having Photographs Taken was Rare and Expensive
When photography was introduced in 1839 it required relatively expensive equipment and a degree of training to do. It was largely the realm of professional photographers. Even as photographic technology advanced in the 1850s and 1860s, it was still mostly the domain of professionals. For most people having photographs taken was not a common activity, but a rare luxury. They might only have their pictures taken a few in their lives. People may have believed that serious expressions suited these special occassions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s when cameras become lighter weight, more portable and much easier to use there is growth in the number of amateur photographers. Taking casual snapshots becomes possible and we start to see more smiles.
Poor Dental Care
My last theory is that people, particularly older adults, were not comfortable smiling because they did not have very attractive teeth. In the 1800s good dental care was not widely available. The dental practices like root canals and caps that allow us to keep our teeth today were not done. The cure for a decayed or broken tooth was often simply to pull it. People with missing or chipped teeth might have preferred to take pictures with their mouths closed.
These are the theories that I have developed after years of viewing old photographs. If you have any other ideas, please feel free to share.
L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources