Old Photos: Why our ancestors didn’t smile

Old Photos: Why our ancestors didn’t smile

We remember our ancestors by their photos, which provide small glimpses into their world, and bring them to life once again. If preserved properly, photos offer lasting impressions for future generations.

When looking at old photos of our ancestors, it’s easy to wonder what they were thinking at that moment. Their ambiguous expressions leave us questioning. Were they happy? Were they sad?

It’s extremely rare to find 19th-century photos where people are smiling or showing any emotion. What’s the story behind their stony and serious stares?

There are a few reasons why people back then didn’t smile:

Poor dental care
One theory states that people back then didn’t flash their smiles since their teeth weren’t white. Dental care wasn’t widely available, and dental hygiene wasn’t important. Many people had missing teeth, leaving gaping holes in their mouths, a legitimate reason for not smiling.

Photographs were rare and expensive
People who were lucky enough to pose for early photographs appreciated that it was an important event, that would perhaps only happen once in their lifetime. They treated the photographs much like paintings and adopted portrait standards in which nobody smiled.

Long exposure times
When photography was in its infancy, exposure times were quite long. It could take up to 15 minutes for just one photo to be captured. To reduce movement, people would hold their expressions without smiling. However, in just a few years, the process improved and exposure times were reduced significantly.

As film technology progressed and improved, the movie industry was born. Actors appeared on the big screen, complete with facial movements and expressions. Smiling in photos soon became socially acceptable and encouraged. From the early 1900s, we see more familiar expressions in photos.

Why do you think our ancestors didn’t smile? Tell us in the comments below!


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  • Pat

    September 21, 2015

    Smiling in a photograph was thought to be “showing off”. Bringing attention to yourself was improper.

  • Linda

    September 21, 2015

    I believe it was because it was something new, and rare and to be taken seriously…..and because of the long exposure times. It gives us the feeling that everyone was dead serious during that era, but I think they were people just like us.

  • Dan miller

    September 25, 2015

    Hard work, pain, poverty, no free time, or hobbies.
    But they did gather for fun , music, cards, socializing if Time permitted.

  • John W.

    September 28, 2015

    I catch grief from my family because I never smile for the photos they take. I now know I am reincarnated from an earlier era so I will let them know and maybe they’ll stop complaining. thanks.

  • Roland T

    September 29, 2015

    Bad teeth. It’s hard to hold a smile for 15 mintues.

  • Marara White

    September 30, 2015

    maybe they were a more serious about life.

  • Cheryl D

    October 5, 2015

    When I was little, my grandmother and I were looking a through a box of old photographs. I asked her why no one smiled and she said, times were really hard and no one had a reason to smile.

  • Jill Davy

    October 6, 2015

    Most of the older photos that I have were taken in a studio with a professional photographer. I think they would have been on their best behaviour and dressed in their best clothes. A special occasion.

  • John Ravallio

    October 18, 2015

    Cheryl D is on the money Life must of been very difficult

  • M


    December 11, 2015

    It is simple, and already mentioned, but you didn’t give it enough creedence. My grandfather was an “ancient” photographer, and he always said it was DEFINITELY because of the long exposure times. Period.