No ‘cheese': Why people look so serious in old photos


War isn’t funny. Robert H. Kelly, Union soldier, photographed by Purviance at Fifth and Wood streets in Pittsburgh. | Library of Congress

Bad teeth? It took too long to take the picture?

Turns out showing your teeth when you smiled used to be frowned upon.

“There are some people who raise their upper lip so high… that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them,” St. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle wrote in The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility of 1703.

Smiling in a painting or photo was considered radical, Nicholas Jeeves says in an examination of dour portraits in The Public Domain Review. “By the 17th century in Europe it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent” and entertainers, Jeeves says.

Oh, sure, people did have teeth missing and it did take forever to sit for a painting or for a Daguerreotype. But social pressure played a huge part in keeping the mouth closed. A Mona Lisa smile was OK, intriguing even. It was the happy, laughing smile that was unseemly, taboo.

Jeeves notes that even Mark Twain — Mark Twain! — grimaced when thinking about smiling.

“A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever,” Twain once wrote a newspaper.

So it wasn’t only technology but also changing mores that made possible pictures like this (thank you, Life magazine):


h/t Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic