Check Out Our Genealogy Blog »

Smile for the Camera

Most of us have one or more old family photos, I’m talking very old, dating back to the 19th century. Did you stop to look that no matter who is in the photo or the occasion, that no one is smiling?  First, think about it, neither are any portraits that were painted by artists, before photography became available, is a person smiling. That is because you had to sit for a long time to have a painting done. Most photography processing of the 1800s also took some time and you just couldn’t hold a smile that long.  If you moved you would blur the image.

Also note people dressed for a photo in their finest formal clothes.  Most images were taken in the photographer’s studio, so this was a big deal and was to be taken seriously.  Because artist’s paintings were serious, the tradition remained to keep a straight appearance and no smile.  If a photo session was done outside, the same attitude, keep a dignified appearance. To give a big grim or smile just was not done.

The custom was that a person should look dignified and it would make the men look handsome and the women look serene in their portraits. Military photos are very much have the distinguished and noble appearance.

If you were smiling your teeth would show and that might not have been a good idea back in the 1800s when many individuals were missing teeth, had uneven teeth or discolored ones.

With the development of fasting processing of photo film just before 1900, a person didn’t need to sit or stand still for a long period of time. However, it still took awhile for people to get out of the habit of being so formal during a photo session.  That is why that tradition continued into the 1910s and even early 1920s.

With people having their own cameras into the 1920s and 1930s, things began to change.  Photos became more candid, more relaxed and people started to smile when their picture was taken.

I have a nice digital collection of ancestral photos, some even paintings going back to 1824. They are in date order so it is very easy to follow over the decades the photos and the non-existent smiles.  Whether it was a child’s portrait, a young married couple or an elderly person, it was the same, no smiling.

The first smiling child photo I have was a cousin taken in 1909. In 1918 I have a nice group photo of my great grandmother and her sisters, who all had a grin, but not showing any teeth. By the 1920s and throughout the rest of the 20th century there are mostly smiling faces for the camera, even the formal studio portraits.

Check out your own family archive of photos.  Or look at the online site titled Ancient Faces for many examples of vintage photos.

The photo above is of my gr,gr. grandmother, Savilla Sherman Musselman, taken in 1869.  Note gold outlining for jewelry was added, but no smile.

< Return To Blog