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Why Didn’t They Smile… ?

Why Didn’t They Smile… ?

If you have ever taken the time to look through old photo’s you will notice one prevailing theme. No one smiled for the first few decades of photography. The creepy Edgar Allan Poe headshot is a great example. Although, it wouldn’t be quite the same if the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” had a huge smile in his iconic photo.


There are generally a few schools of thoughts around the subject. Some of the main hypotheses include technical limitations, bad oral hygiene, the seriousness of formal occasions and it was culturally less common to smile as a sign of happiness.



The first photograph was shot in 1826 and took 8 hours to expose. This was a revolutionary way to capture images. The science and acheivements that led to this innovation were numerous and took hundreds of years. We explored the history and science of photography here. In 1839 Louis Daguerre was able to get exposure time down to 15 minutes which was still an awfully long time to hold a smile for. During that time photographers set up a few simple rules: no talking, no adjusting, no sneezing, and, just to be safe, no smiling.

One other reason people may have been less likely to smile was the state of oral hygiene at the time. At that time, not only was dental care not widely available, procedures like root canals and caps were not done. The solution for almost all problems with teeth was to pull them out altogether. This led to some not-so-flattering smiles.




Taking photographs was also much less common during the early days of photography. There were not millions of photographs uploaded to social media sites on a regular basis. People were certainly not taking pictures of their tapa’s for “the gram”. In the mid 1800’s photography was a serious luxury. It was rare to get the opportunity and certainly very expensive. Perhaps the seriousness and formality of those occasions warranted a formal demeanor. Additionally, these photographs took the style of traditional European fine art wherein only peasants, children, and drunks wore smiles.