A Black & White Answer: Why Are People Not Smiling in Early Photographs?

PhotographOther than the lack of colour, old photographs have one thing in common no matter the subject or the place: none of the people in them was smiling.

The Evolution of Smiles in Photographs

The sternness is everywhere, especially in Victorian photographs. Charles Darwin, who was known as a playful, fun and loving father, looks gloomy in photographs. The portrait of John Frederick William Herschel, a scientist and astronomer, gives off a tragic feel. It only took until the ‘20s for smiles to start becoming the normal expression in photographs.

Why are these people, from unknown sitters to the great and famous, not smiling in front of the lens? What changed?

The many reasons may include technical limitations and the seriousness of the formal occasion. But it seems people of old also refused to smile because of their bad teeth.

Missing or Rotten Teeth

It is largely believed that people did not smile in old photographs because they were hiding missing or rotten teeth, which experts and practices like Bow House Dental agree were all too common prior the 1920s – the days of modern dentistry. Today, people are spoiled to having easy access to dentists and orthodontists, but people in the 1800s certainly did not.

Some experts, however, dismissed this notion, as bad teeth were so common that they are not a contributing factor to a person’s unattractiveness at the time. Very few people had good teeth then, and according to experts, there was likely no stigma associated with dingy teeth.

But according to the book A Brief History of the Smile written by Angus Trumble, just because bad teeth were normal at the time did not mean they were desirable.

Long Exposure Times, Social Stigma

Other than bad teeth, people of the old did not smile in photographs because of the long exposure times for early cameras. Photographers had to ask people to remain still for a long period, and freezing the smile can get uncomfortable after a while.

Also, in the 17th century Europe, the only people who smiled in photographs were the poor, the lewd and the drunk, as well as people in the entertainment industry.

Humans of the 1800s were not unhappy all the time. Although they certainly had things to worry about, it is the long exposure times of early cameras, the social stigma, and the underdeveloped dentistry that should be blamed for the lack of smiles in old photographs.