This is something that has always driven me a little bit nuts. Why is it that people are never smiling in old photos? And a lot of them, not only not smiling, but looking grim. I mean yeah, if you had to carry a candle around the house and shit in a wooden shed in the back yard you might not be super happy either. But really, let’s cheer up a little bit, ya know? It’s not like they knew indoor plumbing would be invented in the near future.
So I did some deep research on the matter. Which in modern parlance means I spent five minutes on Google. The BBC had a story on this issue just about 8 months ago. You’d be surprised how often the BBC is a good research spot for topics that comedians are researching. Apparently they concern themselves with the same unimportant BS that we do.
The article suggests that the change to smiling starts to take place in the Edwardian era. That’s just after the Victorian era when they started to realize that being all “stick up the ass” isn’t that much fun. I think smiling during the Victorian period was considered “lascivious” or some other British-y word like that.
One of the more compelling arguments involves the actual technology of taking photographs at the time. Early daguerreotypes needed 60-90 seconds to get the correct exposure. It’s hard to hold a smile for that long. I know from personal experience because it takes my dad that long to figure out how to take a photo with his digital camera. And you couldn’t move at all. Not quite sure what they did about blinking. Maybe all that laudanum slows down your blinking too.
However, most of the daguerreotypes we see are from post-1845 when they had gotten the process down to a few seconds. I’m pretty sure even Kristen Stewart could hold a grin for that long.
Another argument was that, at the time, having your picture taken was expensive, and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now, this makes sense. If you’ve only got one shot, you don’t want to throw up some goofy-ass smile that might make you look like a crazy person. You could have something stuck in your teeth. And, of course, dental hygiene wasn’t at its peak back then. Nobody wants to go down in history as being that famous photo of a guy with one tooth AND he has a piece of broccoli stuck to it. Instead they usually ended up with something that looked like a cross between tourist-trap-old-timey-portrait-studio and bad-hair-day-at-the-dmv.
So I think that between bad teeth and Victorian attitudes, nobody smiled. Now you can’t turn around without someone snapping your picture with their cell phone. Fortunately we have dentistry, mostly. We can blink and grin stupidly all we want. We are, in fact, pretty well hard wired to smile for the camera now. They often even have trouble getting serious pictures of people standing in front of their former home that was destroyed during some catastrophe.
And so the moral of this story is…. Nothing, I guess. Just a pointless rumination on the smiling habits of people from 150 years ago. Way to spend my time efficiently.