Now You Know: Why Do People Always Look So Serious in Old Photos?

7 minute read

Do you have a question about history? Send us your question at history@time . com and you might find your answer in a future edition of Now You Know.

The first photographs were taken in the late 1820s, and the new medium developed throughout the rest of the century as a practical tool, artistic form and social activity. But, even though there were a few smiles to be found in the early years of photography, it took until the 1920s and ’30s for smiles to start becoming the standard expression in photographs.

So why was that the case, and what changed?

One possibility is dental. Some dismiss the idea that bad teeth could have been a possible cause for early photography’s close-lipped images, since that was a common condition and wouldn’t have necessarily been noteworthy at the time. But Angus Trumble, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, and author of A Brief History of the Smile, disagrees. He points to the professionalization of dental health as one factor leading to the rise of smiles, arguing that just because bad teeth were normal didn’t mean they were desirable. “People had lousy teeth, if they had teeth at all, which militated against opening your mouth in social settings,” he says.

Another common explanation for the lack of smiles in 19th century photographs is that, because it took so long to capture a photograph back then, people in pictures couldn’t hold a smile for long enough. “Some of that is true,” says Todd Gustavson, technology curator at the George Eastman Museum. “If you look at the early processes where you did have a long exposure time, you’re going to pick a pose that’s comfortable.” But he says that technology has been overplayed as the limiting factor. By the 1850s and ’60s it was possible in the right conditions to take photographs with only a few seconds of exposure time, and in the decades that followed shorter exposures became even more widely available. That means the technology needed to capture fleeting expressions like a genuine smile was available long before such a look became common.

Christina Kotchemidova, a professor studying culture and communication who wrote an article on the history of smiles in snapshot photography, also questions the technology argument. That idea, she says, comes from our world, in which it seems “natural to smile for a picture” and people have to be told not to. But, she says, while smiling in general may be innate, smiling in front of a camera is not an instinctive response.

Experts say that the deeper reason for the lack of smiles early on is that photography took guidance from pre-existing customs in painting—an art form in which many found grins uncouth and inappropriate for portraiture. Though saints might be depicted with faint smiles, wider smiles were “associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous,” says Trumble. Accordingly, high-end studio photographers would create an elegant setting and direct the subject how to behave, producing the staid expressions which are so familiar in 19th century photographs. The images they created were formal and befitted the expense of paying to have a portrait made, especially when that portrait might be the only image of someone.

But even from the beginning, a less experienced photographer might break the norms that were being established, suggests Gustavson. Some early photographs of smiles show the importance of context in determining the expression on the subject’s face. A photograph of two officers in the Mexican-American war in 1847 shows one smiling, and an image of poker players from 1853 also has one smiling man and one focused on his cards. An African-American man with his hands up as though boxing was preserved with a smile in 1860. These are still performative portraits, but they’re not quite like the formal painted portraits of the upper classes. As the types of people who took photographs and sat for portraits expanded, that in turn widened the range of acceptable expressions for portraits.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

So it makes sense that what perhaps changed those formal expressions most was the rise of snapshot photography, which further democratized the medium.

“Take the camera out of the professional and put it into the hands of the snapshot photographer and then they can do whatever they want” says Gustavson. With George Eastman’s 1888 Kodak camera, the chemical processing of the film was done for you and the camera came with an instruction manual. By including a section on what made a good picture, Eastman was “guiding cultural norms as to what photography was going to be,” Gustavson adds. The 1900 Brownie camera took it even further. At an affordable $1 each, it was marketed as a child’s camera, though plenty of adults used them too.

The norms of spontaneous, amateur photography began to bleed into more formal photography, says Trumble, as people developed new expectations about how they wanted to be seen. As the century wore on, photography and painting began to interact, each trying to take advantage of the other medium’s benefits. Painters would try to emulate the clarity and spontaneity of photos, and photographers would attempt to evoke the artistry of fine painting. That went for smiles too, Trumble says, as “people begin to smile in effervescent ways” in painted portraits during in the Edwardian period, about 1895-1914, after the same change took place in photography.

By World War II, the shift in photographic norms was pretty much complete.

A study of high school yearbook photos in the U.S. taken from 1905 to 2005 told a similar story of the changing default expression. The researchers averaged images of men and women by decade, and though it was a specific sample, they found that average lip curvature increased over time and also that women led the way to toothy grins, on average smiling more than men did in any given decade.

Kotchemidova argues that it was no coincidence that the broad grin was an American phenomenon, and that advertising played a key role in its spread. The Kodak catchphrase “you press the button, we do the rest” was part of a shift from threatening ads to a more positive strategy and “Kodak was one of the pioneers,” she says. The new method focused on consumer happiness with the product and portrayed consumers using the camera during happy moments. These commercial cues that smiling was what you should do in a photograph were particularly effective at influencing people, bypassing the need to explain why someone should be beaming at the camera. People internalized the messages, Kotchemidova believes, and imitated the examples in front of them.

That is perhaps the most important lesson of the study of historical smiles: whether or not people are smiling in photographs has very little to do with how happy they are.

People in the 1800s weren’t unhappy all the time. Both Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, for example, were noted for their humor; though they certainly had things to worry about, photographs of Lincoln sometimes have a hint of upturned corners of the mouth and there’s even a photograph of the Queen smiling outright.

“People in human history have smiled, laughed, and behaved more or less as they do today, in other words naturally and spontaneously, in the private sphere,” says Trumble. “What is radically different is public performance and public presentation.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at