Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Photos?

October 9, 2019  - by 
An old, black and white image of a family not smiling, a tradition that came from portrait painting

Ever looked at an old, black-and-white photograph and wondered, “Why the long face?” You might have heard that it was because of the cameras’ long exposure times, or maybe you were told that poor dental work meant that fewer people wanted to show their teeth in old photos.

While these explanations may play a part, the main reason why people didn’t smile in old photos had more to do with culture and customs of old paintings and portraiture than it did with poor technology.

The Tradition of Not Smiling for Painted Portraits

portrait of man smiling. people didn't smile in old photos because of traditional portraits, which frowned upon wide smiles

Before photography, the main mode of preserving a family’s or person’s image was through painting portraits. It was customary for families and individuals in these commissioned, traditional portraits to have stoic, regal expressions. If they did smile, it would be only slightly.

This early custom was because wide-mouthed, toothy grins were considered inappropriate for portraiture. Even in other kinds of old paintings, a person’s wide smiles were often associated with madness, drunkenness, or otherwise informal, immature behavior.  

When photography was introduced as a new way of preserving a person or family’s likeness, people continued the tradition of unsmiling expressions because it was familiar to them, and the ideals for capturing someone’s likeness had not changed.

When Did We Start Smiling in Photographs?

So what changed? How did we go from stoic expressions to saying “Cheese!” for grins? It goes back to the 1900 Brownie camera, one of the first early cameras that were accessible and affordable to the public. As photograph technology became more accessible to everyday people, photos were more spontaneous and captured candid smiles and laughter.

People smiling in black and white photos. Traditions around portrait painting is the main reason why didn't people smile in old photos, but candid photos captured more smiles

People began to prefer the amateur photos that captured their smiling, joyful expressions. The practice of photographing smiles crept into formal photography, and eventually it was culturally acceptable—and then encouraged—to smile in family photos and portraits.

Turn that Frown Upside-Down

If you’ve ever wondered what those old-time photos might have looked like with a few more cheesy smiles, now is your chance! Using Picture My Heritage, you can pose with whatever expression you want in old, black-and-white photographs.

1. Visit Picture My Heritage, and either sign in with your FamilySearch account or continue as a guest.

2. If you aren’t immediately taken to a page with old, black-and-white photos, be sure to click the top-right silhouette icon.

3. Click a photo you wish to picture yourself in.

4. Select the face you want to replace with your own.

Picture My Heritage screenshot - placing face in a black and white photo to smile

5. On the next screen, make sure your camera is turned on (if your laptop does not have a camera, you can also use your phone), and place your face where you want it in the image. A white outline of a face will guide you to the best placement.

Picture My Heritage screenshot - placing face in photo

6. Click the black button to take the image.

7. Adjust the brightness and contrast by clicking either the sun or the black-and-white circle icon and moving the slider. You can also enlarge or minimize the photo by clicking and dragging the rectangle box on the image.

Picture My Heritage - Adjusting photo on face

8. When you have finished, click either Retake, if you want to redo the photo, or Done. If you click Done, you will be taken to the final image. Save the image by clicking the black Download button, or you can return to the home page, and try other photos.

Picture My Heritage - Final photo of someone smiling in an old photo

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    1. I think this is horrible! Replacing a person’s face with your own, even if you don’t know them is changing history. It is dishonest. Something we try to avoid in genealogy! Shame on you!

      1. I thought the same thing as Linda. I had heard this technology was coming. It really worries me. Someone could place another’s face on a picture of someone doing something illegal and take it to the police as proof. You are framed. Scary to me.

          1. Since 1988…I worked for AP in the Los Angeles burea then and we worked beta testing the first digital darkroom at Seoul, Korea Olympics! It was quite disturbing to play with it and discover we could erase a baseball from a Dodger’s glove and repainted it past the glove…effectively changing history!!

            No big deal these days… All you have to do now is just lie about something repeatedly and SOMEONE will create something to prove and disprove it, so the truth will be whatever you want to believe!!! (2020)

      2. Maybe, but I think you are just taking another copy of the original and using your face. I enjoy seeing my face in different clothes and styles from that time period.

      3. This article is not advocating going into your old photos and changing their faces. And especially not doing anything illegal! This is just an opportunity to play around with some old photos that they already have available for this face switch game. That’s all it is. It’s a game. It’s not to try to fool somebody.

      4. Don’t worry! The purpose of this activity is to have fun and encourage interest in history – not to change it. The original photo is not altered, nor are your own original photos used. These are sample photos that you can temporarily superimpose your face into – just for fun. You can save them to enjoy later – or not. I have used this activity with my grandsons, putting each of our faces into a picture of the Old West. They thought it was great and they have wanted to try putting their faces into the pictures of different ethnicities. It has not only been a lot of fun, but it has increased their interest in different cultures and In exploring the past. I’m so grateful Family Search is providing different ways to engage our young family members and pique their interest in family history. Good work!

      5. No need to be so rude because they probably made it as a way to make people laugh and i feel like you were being too harsh so please try to be nicer like Jesus would with you.

    2. True, the tooth brush was not invented till not so long ago. (Even then it had horse hairs, not nylon strings…) Barbers would cut your hair, pull out your teeth, AND do surgery. When George Washington became president, he only had one tooth and was afraid to smile.

  1. I think it’s good to learn more about history and this fits right into that category. I have many current photos of my family that I would love to put a smile on their face! Probably won’t change my old photos but it’s nice to understand how to do it.

  2. I have photos of 8 generations of my direct maternal line. It would be interesting to place our faces in order in the sample photo to see the facial features and expressions passed from mother to daughter. In reply to some of the earlier comments, assuming that you saved your original, the act of changing the photo then becomes irrelevant and if properly labelled, simply a new curiosity. Thanks Family Search for quality articles!

  3. Thanks for the tip. Good info about the old stoic faces. Nice to know too that we can become part of an old photo, though if one does make a change he / she should certainly note it as documentation for the photograph.

    Especially thanks for using the photo of the nine ladies whose group / act name escapes me. That’s a family photo! — taken between 1908 and 1910. My maternal grandmother, Rebecca Bytheway Barraclough is third from left. Yea verily! 🙂

  4. You do realize that many photos of the past (1800’s) were taken after the person had passed on. It sometimes took a photographer get to the house of the deceased. There were a lot of pictures of children, as they often died of diseases to which we are now inoculated from. We are fortunate people now-a-days.

  5. We used to do this at the History Center with teens and some adults after teaching them genealogy or indexing in groups. Now we can do it at home, what fun. I still miss working at the History Center in American Fork, Utah

  6. That’s not the way I heard it (from a genealogist I heard speak at the Tennessee State Library and Archives). A specialist in determining the approximate dates photos were taken based on the form of delivery, shape, inscriptions and/or clothing and hairstyles worn by the subjects). According to the speaker, the most common reason for our ancestors not smiling when being photographed was because photography was so primitive, the cameras so heavy and so forth, it took forever to set up the shots. That being the case, those being photographed quickly became impatient and, basically, what photographers eventually captured was that impatience.

    Family photos that included young children obviously took the longest to obtain and made the process all the more tedious.

    Our relatives were so well-dressed in these photos- even in some cases, borrowing the formal attire when they couldn’t afford the clothes- because these immigrants wanted to give the impression that they had “made it” in America.

  7. Comment and business idea. Keep reading. I think this is an example of using technology to bring us to our past. I think we need more of this connecting to our past and as we think of ways to use technology to do this it will open up more discovering. One way I think that technology can help to discover our past with images would be to develop facial recognition to connect known identified persons in images to the same albeit unknown person from another time period that someone else has and does not know who it is. Many people have photos of their relatives in albums and often there is someone that they don’t know who they are. Sometimes an adopted child has a photo in their belongings or obtains some photo but the name or the relationship is unknown. Suppose you wanted to find that person to get some clues to your past. Facial recognition technology could aid in that search. Suppose that a repository of a million photos of unknown persons and another repository of 30 million photos of identified persons varying from age and settings. There are many ways this could be a service and many ways facial recognition could be implemented to connect to the past. Research could develop other ways to connect. If you are interested in doing this I am interested in helping. My email can be obtained by looking for one of my family members (LX1P-TR9). It is that if you are interested in some ideas and working together please find my email.

  8. Me too ! I bet many had bad or missing teeth as dentistry was not common. People relied on anyone from the barber to the pharmacist to the blacksmith for taking out bad teeth as there weren’t fillings. People out in the country really must have suffered.

  9. This is very comical. It actually does look a little “crazy” to see old black and white photos with our modern toothy smiles. Young kids especially love this game. 🙂

    Note: Did you realize the font fields for name and email are typing with white text? I have to highlight the fields in order to see my input. Also, the first check box has no text next to it.