Why dont people smile in old photographs? (Smithsonian.com)
Why dont people smile in old photographs?
Lexile

You asked us, why don't people smile in old photographs. Technology is partly to blame.

The Daguerreotype, the first widely used photographic process, was invented in 1839. The exposure time in those early days was really long, sometimes lasting up to 15 minutes or so. Way too long to hold a smile.

But that timing was cut down pretty quickly, so there was more at play here than just the tech.

Although it was less expensive than having your portrait painted, getting your picture taken still wasn't cheap. Some people had just one photo snapped their whole entire life. That made the event a pretty important and formal deal.

Unlike portrait painters, photographers weren't trying to capture an instant in their subjects' lives, but more of an ideal of that person. Plus, back in the day, the classy just didn't say, cheese."

So, picture equals sourpuss.

It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century when cameras became portable and easier to use, that pictures turned into casual snapshots, and smiles became more common.

Now, we can't get enough of those pearly whites.

For more stories like this, check us out every day at smithsonian.com

Critical thinking challenge: Why are you told to say "cheese" when your picture is taken?

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COMMENTS (239)
  • ad2000stealth
    2/10/2015 - 10:10 a.m.

    We are told to say cheese because back in the day, people didn't say cheese and since they didn't say that, they wouldn't smile, but now when we are taking pictures, we say cheese because it's basically just saying "smile". Saying cheese is a symbol to smile for a photo.

  • MCS2001softball
    2/10/2015 - 10:10 a.m.

    It makes a lot of sense that people didn't smile in old photos because they may have had only one photo taken of them their entire life and they wanted to be portrayed as important. When cameras became more widely available and cheaper to buy, photos became more common because of the fact that you always were able to have a camera on you (like now with phones). I think that cameras are a great way to show that technology has advanced so much in a century or two.

  • jm1999gizmo
    2/10/2015 - 10:11 a.m.

    they ask us to say cheese to make us smile or to remember to smile because some people don't like smiling in there pictures because some peoples personality's are different.

  • D.F2001Rex
    2/10/2015 - 10:14 a.m.

    Taking a photograph is a good example of how technology advanced overtime. Taking a photo use to be expensive but nowadays it comes in also every single phone that you purchase.

  • AB2000soccer
    2/10/2015 - 10:15 a.m.

    I think you are told to say 'cheese' while taking a picture because your teeth show when you say it. You mouth also goes wider so it looks like you are smiling. And it's also and easy word to say while smiling.

  • SH2000
    2/10/2015 - 10:18 a.m.

    I never knew that the first lets just say camera took 15 minuets just to take one photo, so now I see why they didn't smile. Or that's just what we believe, but people back in the day like to look and sound sophisticated.

  • Js2001ege
    2/10/2015 - 10:19 a.m.

    You are told to say cheese because the word "cheese" automatically widens your mouth into a smile so you are basically smiling without even thinking about it

  • antont-Sch
    2/10/2015 - 10:20 a.m.

    I wonder why they say cheese. And I think at least one person smiled in any old photographs. I wonder what they look like. Are they big or small.

  • brookep-Rog
    2/10/2015 - 10:53 a.m.

    They don't smile because they would stay there for 15 minutes and it would heart to just stay there and why did they take pictures if they don't smile. Its kind of weird don't you think. And why are the pictures black and white its not like that today at all and we have color and a phone with a camera.

  • jaysons-Tho
    2/10/2015 - 10:59 a.m.

    Wow 15 minutes to take a photograph just wow technoligy
    has change so much thank you world I really feel sorry for the 1800 they must get really
    tired.

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