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Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photos

November 26th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

I can relate to this topic. I rarely smile in photos either. I just do not feel I have the whitest teeth and I tend to smile awkwardly. There are a number of reasons why people did not smile in old photos. They may have felt embarrassed by their teeth. Remember way back when they did not have access to the dental care we have today. Their teeth were probably horrible if they had any teeth at all. Perhaps they were all gums! They may have felt down. They just did not want to force a fake smile. However, a more realistic reason was probably that they had to stand so long in the old days. After you have to stand for so long, the happiness for taking the picture tends to fade.

In the 1870’s having a photo taken at a studio was a special occasion. It involved dressing in your best attire. It was almost like attending Sunday Mass. The whole experience was serious and people wanted to remain stoic to retain their life in pictures. In fact, some thought it might be the only picture they would ever take! That is how serious they were! The cameras were big and so were the pictures they produced. Pictures were delicate and protected on heavy card stock. In some cases, people would have to stand and sit for so long they would be exhausted.

They would actually prop them up with metal rods put down their backs. Just think of how uncomfortable that must have been. I would not be smiling. I would be cursing! Of course, life was very different then. Even children never had smiles in pictures. What could children be upset about? People had to work very hard just to make ends meat. Times were tough and so were the people. They suffered many hardships. Poverty, disease and poor hygiene. Not to mention war. That does not leave a lot to smile for a picture. After all smiling is a form of happiness. It can reflect contentment, joy and inner satisfaction.

People tend to smile less, as they get older. Women tend to smile more then men.   The weird part of it is that smiling can actually benefit your health and emotions. No wonder there were so much illness years ago. Even a surface smile can be better than nothing can. It will trick your brain to release those happy hormones called endorphins. Remember it takes more facial muscles to frown then to smile! It takes an amazing 35 muscles to frown and 4 to smile! If only people knew that year ago. Another reason many people did not smile was simply that they were taught not to. Pictures were taken at formal occasions and smiling was not proper etiquette. It could also be a cultural thing among certain peoples.

Thank goodness, cameras and serious attitudes changed over the years. Today we can enjoy taking pictures wherever and whenever we want and even smile from time to time.

  1. Shanon
    February 8th, 2009 at 06:35 | #1

    I think people in old photos do not smile because it was the accepted norm at that time.

  2. Sarah
    August 23rd, 2009 at 16:14 | #2

    People didn’t smile in old photos because it took so long for the shutter to stay open that their facial expressions would change. The photographer recommended that they not smile but have a stoic expression to keep the mouth area from blurring.

  3. November 9th, 2009 at 12:31 | #3


    Wow! Your explanation makes perfect sense!

    Thanks Sarah!

  4. Allie
    January 10th, 2010 at 00:27 | #4

    Another explanation could be this one: Look at old artwork/paintings of people. Most of the subjects in paintings are not smiling either. Old photos were viewed in a similar fashion as a painting in those days. It was a very formal setting. I also think smiling in photos didn’t become mainstream until the popularity of television. Television started changing people’s attitudes about appearances, etc. I believe TV helped people realize that it was okay to smile and let your playful side show.

  5. Kent
    March 25th, 2010 at 14:09 | #5


    Bingo. It just wasn’t the cultural norm to smile for the camera. While it’s true that in the early days of photography long exposure times required people to pose for minutes at a time, technological advances eliminated the need for these long exposures by the 20th century. Clearly it was just not the accepted norm to smile for the camera; people tried to look natural. The movement toward smiling developed as personal camera ownership became more and more widespread and “Mom” wanted “Junior” to smile and look happy.

  6. J
    October 6th, 2010 at 11:30 | #6

    You can’t even spell ‘meet’ and you’re professing to be an expert and ‘relate’ to the subject? It has nothing to do with people not being happy and having a hard life. Most of the people who had their picture taken in the 19th century were wealthy enough to afford to do so, thus they had a fine life comparatively.

    The fact is the exposure of the film took more than a minute (and as someone said, you had to be still to ensure it didn’t blur the image). Besides which, why would anyone sit/stand there and smile for a minute or two? That would be absurd and it wouldn’t occur to them. You don’t smile for a photo, you smile when you are showing emotion. It was more important to show a realistic (and not blurred) image.

  7. Lilly
    February 2nd, 2011 at 21:44 | #7

    Calm down. it’s not that serious. . .

  8. March 26th, 2011 at 05:30 | #8

    also showing teeth in black n white picture won’t look opt. but indeed it a very elite profession those time. now even couple of year old kid also takes a snap using iphone :)

  1. June 16th, 2010 at 10:02 | #1