Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photographs?

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

Daguerreotype portrait of Emerson Opdycke.


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.

Portrait of older couple by itinerant photographer Albert Ewing.

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

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54 Responses to Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photographs?

  1. Nora Bouvier says:

    I have also heard the theory that some of the “vacant” looks in the eyes of the subjects from that period was due to the curative elixirs of the time. Many contained opiates.

  2. Very interesting. I believe another possible reason is that the concept of having a portrait done by daguerreotype, tintype and early forms of photography were culturally shaped or informed by the long-standing style of sitting for a painted portrait. In the early stages of photography, people thought of their image along the lines of paintings, not photographs. It did not occur to them to smile, and why would it? Sometimes it takes time for our cultural forms to catch up with our technology.

    I believe we have this kind of overlap in other ways in history. For instance, the formation of soldiers marching into battle during the Civil War was a hangover from former days, when it took more time and process to load a weapon. Standing in a field side by side and firing at the enemy was dangerous, yet the enemy was standing and firing with the same kind of weapons. But during the Civil War, rifles became more effective and could be loaded quicker, yet soldiers kept marching in the manner of older days and casualty rates were extremely high because the effectiveness of the weaponry was ahead of the old way that soldiers were used to marching into the field.

  3. Ruth Brindle Dobyns says:

    I have heard the “long exposure time” rationale before (can’t remember where I read it, of course) and it certainly does make sense. It’s also a great “teaching moment” when kids come into the museum, because inevitably, some curious 3rd grader will ask exactly that question. So I ask all the kids to smile like they would for a photo and to hold that smile while I explain…and then I launch into a VERY lengthy description of the photographic process, including the length of time it took to expose the film…all the while their faces are starting to cramp up from smiling and they are muttering about how their cheeks hurt. They never forget the explanation!

  4. Where is there any evidence of your assertions. Can you provide links/sources to the information that made you come to your conclusions?

    • ohiohistory says:

      In this post I wrote very generally about photographic history and posed my theories in order to prompt discussion. That early photographs required longer exposure times and photography was initially a cumbersome and highly specialized process is relatively known. Of the numerous books about early photography, two that I keep on my desk for reference are “Camera Clues, A Handbook for Photographic Investigation” by Joe Nickell and “The Photographic Experience 1839-1914, Images and Attitudes” by Heinz K. and Bridget A. Henishch. In regard to dental history, I recommend “Dentistry: An Illustrated History” by Malvin E. Ring.

  5. Alan Wigton says:

    Another factor may have been a cultural tendancy to not smile at strangers. That is a deeply rooted thing with Russian people that is only recently beginning to fade. Smiling at strangers is/was considered a sign of being not very smart…a simpleton. Our ancestors came from all over the world, and from many repressive situations. Perhaps it took a while for society to adjust to more openness.

    • I totally agree with this, having been to Russia in just the past few years. When sharing some of our American pictures with them, they all asked why we show our teeth. Why do we smile? In all of the pictures we took of them and their culture, not a single one is smiling.

  6. Shirley Wajda says:

    Here’s what I’ve written about the smile in my forthcoming book on portrait photography in the United States:

    Scholars and others have attributed the paucity of smiling sitters in extant nineteenth-century daguerreotypic and photographic portraiture to fear of the process, or to lengthy exposure times, or even to bad teeth. All are to varying degrees and in various examples true. Nevertheless, news of daguerreotypy was quickly and broadly spread in the 1840s; Americans read of its invention and processes in popular periodicals and newspapers, attended lectures and demonstrations, and visited daguerreotypists’ rooms, if only to marvel at the specimens. If visitors elected to sit for their portraits, they found, in the 1840s and 1850s, that the once-lengthy exposure times had been greatly reduced, due to improvements in lens, chemicals, and daguerreotypists’ expertise—even when it came to bad teeth. Some daguerreotypists attended to portraiture and bad teeth. The sciences of daguerreotypy and dentistry coincidentally rose in common practice in the 1840s. In 1845, Dr. S. C. McIntyre informed the “Ladies and Gentlemen of Pensacola” that he had prepared rooms in their city in which to take “colored Photographs in the latest and Most improved style.” The editor of the Pensacola Gazette, endorsing Dr. McIntyre’s “perfect specimens of the beautiful art,” not only advised his readers to visit his rooms, he recommended “to those who may be suffering from decayed teeth, &c., to give Dr. [] an early call, we can from personal knowledge recommend him to the public as a scientific Dentist.”

    Scientific innovation and popular knowledge did not, however, result in an immediate change in notions of human beauty as conveyed through portraiture. Art historian Angus Trumble observes that beauty before the invention of photography did not include a consideration or rendition of the condition of one’s teeth. If teeth (or the intermittent lack thereof) were captured in portraiture, their owners were, using Trumble’s inventory, “dirty old men, misers, drinks, whores, gypsies, people undergoing experiences of religious ecstasy, dwarves, lunatics, monsters, ghosts, the possessed, the damned, and—all together now—tax collectors, many of whom had gaps and holes where healthy teeth once were…. On the whole,” Trumble concludes, “the great traditions of portraiture, eastern and western, tended to conceal most skin ailments and keep the sitter’s mouth firmly shut.”

    So, bad teeth and missing teeth and false teeth did not always ugliness make (although teeth were difficult for artists to draw). Nor may we assume that the condition of one’s mouth prevented most Americans from sitting for their daguerreotypic likenesses (although the condition of one’s mouth could prompt a visit to the daguerreotypist who used his chair for both portraiture and periodontics). What seems a more satisfactory explanation of all the temperate visages in the thousands of extant daguerreotypes is the emphasis on character and the widespread belief that a smile could be as deceitful as it could be friendly. A forced smile was—and is—a false one. “A smile is an evanescent thing, the play of the moment,” “W.T.”, a earlier Ithaca, New York, writer on daguerreotypy, observed; “now dimpling, now filling and re-dimpling; hold it fast, freeze it on, keep it there for forty seconds, and it is the grin of the idiot.” Psychologists point out that of all human facial expressions, the smile is the one most easily volunteered, no matter a human’s emotional state. To force a smile for the camera was to betray the truth of the moment and risk misunderstanding by viewers of the finished portrait.

    Then again, the use of the smile is linked to an historical culture’s code of decorum: “the smile has always been associated with restraint, with the limitations upon behavior that are imposed upon men and women by the rational forces of civilization …” observes Trumble. “A decorous smile, a smile of restraint, is therefore an important ingredient of good manners, just as the lewd grin has to do with the bad. It can be a kind of mask.” Rather than the spontaneous, broad, teeth-baring smiles made popular in the United States through advertisements in the 1890s and especially after the moving image in the 1920s, the nineteenth-century smile in polite society—and certainly the daguerreotypic portrait was a presentation of the public self—was close-lipped. What modern eyes are blind to in nineteenth-century photographic portraiture is the fact that its subjects were to present, in the era’s code of decorum, a pleasing countenance, the sincere expression of pleasure—the very definition (along with amusement) of the smile. As historian C. Dallett Hemphill observes, advice writers in this period “called for genuine smiles rather than contemptuous expressions, but cautioned against excessive laughter. They warned against distorting the face in any way. … while it was never appropriate to stare at others, one needed to look at those with whom one spoke in order to read their true feelings and intentions. At the same time, one needed to conceal one’s own emotions or, as one author put it, to have ‘perfect command over the utterance of the countenance.’” These portraits present self-possessed individuals—not grinning, nor laughing, nor spontaneous, but calm. Indeed, staring was the problem more often addressed in professional periodicals. Until late in the nineteenth century, Americans portraits in general—whether in oil, pastel, ink, profiles cut by hand, or photographs—overwhelmingly depicted subjects, even children, as self-possessed.

  7. Frank says:

    I’ve done my share of historical research for 1870-1899. I would never expect someone from the nineteenth century to smile in a photograph. It’s way to forward. It’s compromising. It would leave you exposed. “Distastefully familiar” they might say, I believe.

    It was a completely different time. They were completely different people. Husbands spent lifetimes with wives and never expressed a doubt to them. Wives spent lifetimes with husbands and never expected the husband to help or understand. Daughters and sons never spoke about sex, and only under the rarest and most relaxed situations would anyone speak about divorce, or even a neighbor who obtained a divorce… and then in the most hushed tones. A woman would never look a man in the eyes steadily. Oscar Wilde was probably the most offending, outrageous, cheeky, insulting, and affronting man of that era. You should really get your hands on some of his famous quotations. Yet you’ll notice that they are all spoken like anyone you would meet today. Maybe a little cleverer.

    This subject reminds me of a line from “Sister Carrie”, a book by Theodore Dreiser. Written in 1900, the book opens in 1890 Chicago as a stranger, a man, makes a comment to a pretty young woman on a train. Dreiser writes: “Her maidenly reserve, and a certain sense of what was conventional under the circumstances, called her to forestall and deny this familiarity, but the daring and magnetism of this individual, born of past experiences and triumphs, prevailed. She answered.”

    That doesn’t happen today, for most of us.

  8. Lots of good theories! I never really thought about it before…

  9. People didn’t smile in photographs because it grew out of the tradition of Western painted and sculpted portraits in which hardly anyone had smiled since its inception in ancient Egypt. The question is not why people did not smile in 19th C photographs, but when and why did people start smiling in 20th C snapshots.

  10. rosa says:

    very interesting theories I have asked myself the same question about old photograph but never research about it. Nicely done.

  11. Pam Allen says:

    I think life was just very hard and smiles weren’t plentiful. Making these photos probrably wasn’t anything to them ,but for recordkeeping. When i look at their faces i see them thinking of all they have to do and they are thinking they really don’t have time to be doing this??? Just my theory!

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  13. A.G.B. says:

    I have a theory that is might have been seen as ‘unsightly’. They could have thought that it made them seem more mature, rather than smile and look childish.

  14. Quack says:

    hey “duck lips” pose doesn’t require showing teeth. lol

  15. Sally says:

    I tend to agree with other commenters who suggested it’s too serious an affair or it wasn’t cultural to smile for a camera. Though I must say, I do disagree with it having anything to do with opiate usage, at least on a wide scale. We have family photos from the 1800s and up and the subjects aren’t smiling until at least the 1940s. I think they just never thought to smile, or thought that was just something you didn’t do in photographs. Interesting discussion for sure!

  16. Jen G. says:

    My grandma said smiling messed the pictures up. It would make them blur I guess but Idk. I love old photographs tho.

  17. Denise Sharp says:

    I noticed my two grandparents weren’t smiling, almost frowning in my Communion photo with the family at home,,,Now I realize they were just being serious because it was a special ocassion it was my day not theirs…they were born in about 1898 in Poland and very good catholics…My grandmother bought me my communion dress from a bridal shop and it was gorgeous…They in no way would want to spoil my picture…They gave it everything they had and were so serious about the occasion…they cared more about me than about themselves…Makes me feel different when I look at the pic now..

  18. Sue says:

    I agree with David Formanek. Smiling in a photograph just didn’t occur to them, because the point of a photograph was to get an objective recorded portrayal of what they look like.

    Nowadays, with pictures so common & frequent & casual, we’re aware of “I look bad in that picture” or “I look fat”. To them, a picture was just evidence of their existence.

    Nowadays, a picture is a reflection of whether we are attractive or unattractive, a reflection of our moods, personalities, a portrayal of our relationships with each other, sometimes an incorrect illusion of that portrayal if not from the right angle or if someone is standing a few inches away from someone else he or she may look shorter than they really are, etc etc.

    Nowadays, we try to capture (in our many snapshots) our moving & varying essence. Back then, they believed the primary goal was to capture & record tangible flesh, hair, & clothing.

  19. gena estes says:

    When I was little I was told that people didn’t smile because they were afraid the camera would steal their souls.

  20. Jen says:

    Actually, I remember being told that the camera would steal their souls, as well. Since some families’ only photograph of their children was one of the child in a casket, I believe I was told that oftentimes, a funeral was the only “photo” opportunity other family members had as well, and its not really an occasion to be smiling at…

  21. Daynan Lepore says:

    People never smiled because they knew anyone could see the picture. they didn’t want to be smiling at everyone so therefor they would just be serious.
    That’s my theory…

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  23. Bob says:

    Interesting, but I think it could just be because nobody thought to shout “CHEEEESE” ….??….

  24. Remille says:

    Shirley wrote a great reply, I suggest you read it.

    If you want the short and simple, look at painted portraits of that era. No toothy grins. Portraits were meant to evoke character, one of distinguished, refined elegance that is still seen today in academic painting. It was not about capturing a moment in time, it was about depicting the person and their character on canvas (or at least ideally).

    That same notion is found in these photographs, portrayal of a person, and not the portrayal of a moment whether it was joyful or something else. A large smile was unbecoming for a person of standing. But that was due to the etiquette and conventions of society. It’s not that people were any less happy back then. It’s just not something they wanted on film.

    Attitudes changed around the early 20th century, particularly in the 1920s when pop culture came into existence. Glamour shots of movie stars and their sweet, coy expressions paved the way for a new definition of elegance and beauty. Nowadays we can’t imagine anything more attractive, sincere, yet delightful as a warm smile.

  25. Iain Burt says:

    There may have been no reason felt to project the personality which I think is what smiling outwardly is. Also, smiling painted portraits are rare.

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  41. hotmamma says:

    I also heard that ” only fools smile”

  42. Amanda says:

    I wish it would come back in to style. Why do people always have to smile? I’m not a negative person but you aren’t smiling alllll theeee timeeeee

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  45. Amanda says:

    I think that another reason that people didn’t smile much in the old photos is because at one time or another the great depression was going on so they really didn’t have much of a reason for smiling.

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