People Never Smiled In Old Photos? This Is The Reason

Of all human expressions, smiling is one of the most “beautiful”

“Nothing you wear is more valuable than your beautiful smile.” — Connie Stevens

WWhether you’ve noticed this or not, it is absolutely rare to find people smiling in photographs during the 19th and 20th centuries. The individuals in the photographs always looked grim and creepy irrespective of their then state of mind and social status.

A vast majority of the photographed people look extremely sad for a reason unknown. But on closely examining more and more photographs we reach a point wherein we can certainly conclude that it was not that they were sad but instead the grim look was a trend of the era.

Unlike today’s trends which may have their origins from a viral social media post and lack a proper logical explanation as to why it went viral in the first place, the grim & serious looks back in the day had several cultural and scientific explanations backing it.

1. The Victorian culture equated smiling to lunacy:

Queen Victoria queen of the of Great Britain and Ireland (1837–1901) and empress of India (1876–1901)
Queen Victori, the queen of the of Great Britain and Ireland (1837–1901) and empress of India (1876–1901); Source: Pic

A small tightly gripped mouth was considered to be extremely beautiful and was defined as a feature of elegance during Victorian times. During this period the only people who used to frequently smile were young children, peasants and the alcoholics. This lead to stereotypical views about smiles and they were often related to signs of madness, lewdness, and other undesirable traits. Here’s an excerpt from “The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility”, 1703:

“Smiling is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.”

The rich elites always wanted to separate themselves and cut off all their links with the poorer sections of society. They assumed that a grim & serious facial expression would portray them to be highly rational people lost in deep thoughts.

2. Long Exposure Time:

Undated photograph of a young British girl
Undated photograph of a young British girl; Source: Pic

Back in the day, technology was not as polished and easy to use as it is today. The cameras were huge and bulky and required a lot of time to be set up before it could be used to capture photographs.

The photographic films used in these cameras were not very sensitive to light and required exposure times ranging anywhere between a few seconds to a few minutes to capture a perfect image. In simple word terms, any movement during the long exposure shot would result in the image turning blur and hazy.

To avoid this the individuals were instructed to sit as still as possible during the photographic session. Now imagine holding your smile for straight five minutes to get it clicked in a photograph.

Well, this explains to some extent why people avoided smiling for photographs.

3. Serious and Formal Occasions:

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An undated photograph of Members of the Royal Science Society; Source: Pic

Back then cameras were extremely expensive and rare. Only the very rich professionals and powerful citizens could afford to pay for it. So when it came down to getting their photos clicked they treated the event with extreme punctuality and seriousness which directly reflected on their facial expressions too. The bulky camera would then be shipped to their factories wherein the images would be retrieved from the film and sent back to the consumer. It was not until the 1940s that the camera’s size reduced exponentially, it became affordable and easy to operate for common consumers. These cameras did not need to be sent back to the factories for the photos to be retrieved from the film instead a chemical process would develop the image from the film inside the camera itself in less than a minute.

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American writer Mark Twain who was well known for humorous writing; Source: Pic

American author Mark Twain summed it up perfectly by quoting

“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.”


Apart from the above-stated reasons, there are several other plausible reasons which may point out, as to why people never smiled in vintage photos. These reasons haven’t been discussed in this post taking into consideration their contradictory nature and lack of substantial scientific and cultural backing.

Judging the people based on the above-stated reasons we can conclude that even if the technology back then would have allowed them to smile in front of the camera, they would have preferred to keep their mouths shut.

Nevertheless today we live in a wonderful period where our natural smile and relaxed body language are often encouraged not just for photographs but also in our everyday lifestyle. This unconditional, lively smile is the cultural and social trend of our time. So make sure that you make the most of your day by sprinkling moments of smile all throughout and often remind yourself that a smile is just a long mile with with “S”.

Credit: History of Yesterday