The Real Reason Why Your Ancestors Didn’t Smile in Old Photographs

You’ll Probably Find it Pretty Silly!

The Real Reason Your Ancestors Didn't Smile in Family Portraits

Photo credit:

Ever wonder why your ancestors aren’t grinning from ear to ear in those faded black and white family portraits? Though there are many speculations and theories as to why people donned such serious looks in photographs during the 19th century, we’ve decided to debunk the myths to provide you with the truth behind those stern stares.

The Myths Behind Those Unhappy Expressions

Little Girl Vintage Portrait

This little girl doesn’t look too happy about sitting still!
Photo credit: Weird Websites

Some people feel that during the early days of photography, long exposure times discouraged smiling, since everyone — including wiggly, giggly small children and babies — had to sit still for such long periods of time in order for clear images to be produced.







Other people speculate that because the act of getting your portrait taken used to be such a luxurious, and thus uncommon occurrence for the lower and middle-class, solemn expressions in photographs were worn to reflect dignity felt during the rare occasion. Genealogy in Time says that photographic portraits were also known to adopt the standards of portrait oil paintings in which nobody smiled (unless you were Mona Lisa).

Gentleman Victorian Era Portrait

This Victorian gentleman has his poker face down pat. 
Photo credit: Fine Art America

Vintage Portrait Beautiful Young Woman

A beautiful, courtly young woman reserves her smile.
Photo credit: littleg on Tumblr













And then there are those who theorize that older portraits lacked the pearly whites found in today’s photos because, well, pearly whites didn’t actually exist in the 19th century! Adequate dental care wasn’t available to the majority of folks at the time, and dental hygiene practices weren’t as important or prevalent as they are today. Because the only cure for tooth decay was to pull out teeth (leaving nothing but gaping holes), smiles probably weren’t something most people wanted to show off back then, right?

Women Through Generations Vintage Portrait

Is grandma’s cold stare due to the fact that she doesn’t have any teeth?
Photo credit: peopleofplatt on Flickr

Men and Tools Vintage Picture

Tools are serious business — and rotting teeth are, too!
Photo credit: tuesday-johnson on Tumblr

The Real Reason Why Your Ancestors Weren’t Smiling in Vintage Family Photos

Victorian Bride on Wedding Day

This bride hides her smile while her bridesmaid seems to have been caught with one!
Photo credit: vintagespirit on Flickr

Newlyweds in the Victorian Era

Oops! It looks like these newlyweds almost cracked smiles on one of the happiest days of their lives. How dare they?
Photo credit: Flickr

So are these myths actually truthful? Not quite. The real reason why your ancestors didn’t smile in vintage photographs was because they thought smiling would make them look…stupid — or even of lower-class, as portraits back then were to capture an ideal and not a memorable moment in time. You can read more about the subject by heading over to The Public Domain Review. Much like the modern selfie is deemed a social faux pas (unless you’re a teenager), smiling in photos was a major no-no in the 19th century.

It actually wasn’t until the early 1900s that plastering a smile on your face in a portrait was considered acceptable. Once personal Kodak cameras became widely available to the average consumer, a more joyous photography culture emerged and goofy grins replaced pensive glares.








There you have it — the real reason your family members weren’t smiling in vintage photos. Silly? Probably. But to them, we’re likely the uncouth ones!


Did you like these photos? Check out our post about awkward vintage family photos for more great old pictures from days past.

10 thoughts on “The Real Reason Why Your Ancestors Didn’t Smile in Old Photographs

  1. Alice Paige

    My mother always said you were told everyone has teeth and you shouldn’t show them. I think a lot was probably because of missing teeth or decayed looking teeth. She didn’t really approve of the wide smiles you would see in photos in today’s world.

  2. Ellen

    This supports what my mother-in-law always said about all her solemn photos, only it was more like, “We took life seriously, instead of all this grinning silliness.” :-) In her wedding photo from 1933, no one was smiling. No glares or stares, but no big smiles either.

  3. Delbert

    Hi my friend! I wish to say that this post is awesome, nice written and include almost all important infos. I’d like to see more posts like this.

  4. osunurse

    The gentleman in the top hat looks like a post mortem photo. You can see the stand behind his feet and as it was common practice, I am not surprised

    1. Brian

      Those stands were to help the subject remain still for the exposure. They were not sturdy enough to support the dead weight of a man of his size. This simple device is the reason so many perfectly normal photographs are mistakenly identified as post mortem photography.

  5. Jrean Bishop

    Love looking at my older photos and your printed here are tender. Thank you.

    I have a question? My grandchildren and children are interested in seeing how their father/grandfather might look today at 78 years of age. He passed away at 30 years of age. Do you have any suggestions/

    I know there are ways to make improvements on old photos… but I need the reverse.

    thanks for all the Ellis Island photos 1960’s photos its great to look back in time.
    sincerely Jrean

  6. Pingback: What Your Ancestors Really Think About Your Selfies

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