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Why Weren’t Your Ancestors Smiling in Those Old Photos? The Reason Revealed

Thank you to the family history research site Crestleaf for sharing this fun take on why people didn’t smile in old photographs.

Ever wonder why your ancestors aren’t grinning from ear to ear in those faded black and white family portraits? Though there are many speculations and theories as to why people donned such serious looks in photographs during the 19th century, we’ve decided to debunk the myths to provide you with the truth behind those stern stares.

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Some people feel that during the early days of photography, long exposure times discouraged smiling, since everyone — including wiggly, giggly small children and babies — had to sit still for such long periods of time in order for clear images to be produced.

Other people speculate that because the act of getting your portrait taken used to be such a luxurious, and thus uncommon occurrence for the lower and middle-class, solemn expressions in photographs were worn to reflect dignity felt during the rare occasion.

And then there are those who theorize that older portraits lacked the pearly whites found in today’s photos because, well, pearly whites didn’t actually exist in the 19th century! Adequate dental care wasn’t available to the majority of folks at the time, and dental hygiene practices weren’t as important or prevalent as they are today. Because the only cure for tooth decay was to pull out teeth (leaving nothing but gaping holes), smiles probably weren’t something most people wanted to show off back then, right?

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The Real Reason Your Ancestors Weren’t Smiling

So are these myths actually truthful? Not quite. The real reason why your ancestors didn’t smile in vintage photographs was because they thought smiling would make them look…stupid — or even of lower-class, as portraits back then were to capture an ideal and not a memorable moment in time. You can read more about the subject by heading over to The Public Domain Review. Much like the modern selfie is deemed a social faux pas (unless you’re a teenager), smiling in photos was a major no-no in the 19th century.

It actually wasn’t until the early 1900s that plastering a smile on your face in a portrait was considered acceptable. Once personal Kodak cameras became widely available to the average consumer, a more joyous photography culture emerged and goofy grins replaced pensive glares.

There you have it — the real reason your family members weren’t smiling in vintage photos. Silly? Probably. But to them, we’re likely the uncouth ones!

Like old photos? Check out Crestleaf’s post about awkward vintage family photos for more great old pictures from days past.

Images: “Portrait of woman wearing hat and fur stole,” Library of Congress, and “Woman seated on grass with child in lap,” Library of Congress

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4 thoughts on “Why Weren’t Your Ancestors Smiling in Those Old Photos? The Reason Revealed”

  1. I’ve worked with Victorian collections for a long time , some time was spent in museums and historic sites. The conclusion that most curators have come to about why people didn’t smile is that when photography was new, photographers studied the old portrait paintings to see how people sat for a painting. You seldom saw people smile in paintings because they wanted to look dignified. Photographers posed their subjects in the same way as portrait painters.

  2. I get a kick out of some of those crazy hats women wore in those old photos. I do have many of those frowning photos and very few smiling.

  3. There are still countries today that frown on smiling which is why, when you have a passport picture taken, you’re told not to show your teeth and to refrain from smiling too broadly.

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