Why Do People Look So Serious in Old Photos? (with picture)

In the 1800s and early 1900s, smiling in photos was considered childish; beauty norms favored small, prim mouths.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, smiling in photos was considered childish; beauty norms favored small, prim mouths.

Life was harder for most people 150 years ago, but that wasn't the only reason why you rarely see anyone smiling in old photographs. Until relatively recently, smiling for the camera was, well, frowned upon, because it was thought to make you look silly, childish, or even evil.

"In the fine arts, a grin was only characteristic of peasants, drunkards, children, and halfwits, suggesting low class or some other deficiency," says historian Christina Kotchemidova. "Etiquette codes of the past demanded that the mouth be carefully controlled; beauty standards likewise called for a small mouth."

Statistics don't lie: According to research from Brown University and the University of California, Berkeley, high school photos from 1905 to 2013 clearly show how the smile gradually gained popularity over time. Their analysis of 37,000 yearbook images reveals a clear trend in the norm for photographs -- and arguably for American attitudes -- from seriousness to happiness, whether feigned or real. Can you even imagine a selfie in which someone isn't smiling?

Why not smile?

  • Research suggests that smiling, whether you feel like it or not, can improve mood and relieve stress.

  • Because even blind children smile, scientists believe smiling is an innate behavior, not a learned one.

  • On average, a child smiles approximately 400 times a day, while an adult manages only about 20 such grins.

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    • In the 1800s and early 1900s, smiling in photos was considered childish; beauty norms favored small, prim mouths.
      In the 1800s and early 1900s, smiling in photos was considered childish; beauty norms favored small, prim mouths.