1800s Photos – No Smiles

So many of your early family portraits, no one is smiling. There are several reasons.

Back in the 1800s, wide-mouthed, toothy grins were considered inappropriate for a portrait. People in normal life still smiled and laughed but not for a portrait, including a painting. Here is a quote by Mark Twain about smiling for a photo.

A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.” (Quote by Mark Twain)

Also with early cameras in a studio, the exposure time was long, so the person had to sit there for a long time and not move a muscle. Smiling and keeping still for up to 15 minutes would have been hard. If they moved the photo was blurry.

Many of your ancestors did not have nice white straight teeth and that would have look poor in a photo.

Photographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries instructed their subjects to say “prunes” when they were posing for the camera. This was meant to purse the subject’s lips so that their mouth appeared smaller than it was, which was a sign of beauty at the time. Not only were small mouths more beautiful by Victorian standards, but they also reflected the proper etiquette of the age, namely to be demure and reserved.

With the invention of the affordable Kodak Brownie camera about 1900, people had their own camera, costing just $1. You didn’t need to hold still for a long period of time, the picture became more spontaneous and could capture the person’s candid smile and laughter. Even the expression, say ‘Cheese!’ before taking a photo encouraged someone to smile for the camera.

Photo: A couple’s studio portrait and no smiles.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

‘Back’ Photos

Awesome Photos

Historic Photos

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