Yesteryear’s Memories: Smiling in photos

May 16, 2023

I was looking at some pictures of my family, taken back in the early 1900s. They were posed in front of rattan chairs with elegant potted palms on either side. They were sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, and some were even resting their chins on some sort of table. They of course wore the attire of the day — men with stiff collars, ladies with fancy hats, and kids in their Sunday go-to-church clothes. It was interesting and enlightening, but something was wrong. Somehow, they seemed so serious. It took me a little while to figure out just what bothered me about those pics. Then I figured it out.

Not one of them was smiling. Not even a trace of a grin. It was a little weird — I wondered if they were mad or nervous or maybe their shoes were just too tight. I looked at other photos from the time. I didn’t find one with a smile.

Now I’m sure that this subject had been studied numerous times. Some say that it took so long to take the shot in early photos, that a smile was too difficult to hold for long periods. That’s probably true. Some say that dental care was much less available and people weren’t proud of their smiles. That may have been a factor in some cases, too, but I have my own theory. I think it’s a combination of factors — so I have surmised some of the things they may have been thinking as the pictures were taken.

The family wants a picture of Aunt Mary. She was the one who organized family picnics, gave advice to the younger family members on marriage, home buying and jobs. So she dressed up in a tight dress (she gained a few pounds over the last few years), she got a new hat (that cost her the princely sum of eighty cents), she had to ask Uncle Milan for a ride into town (which he complained about because the buggy brake had to be fixed first), and she had to pay another seventy five cents to the photographer. They had to get ready to go into town because on the way back they needed coffee and sugar. They had a little tiff over the cost of the photo and the fact that Mary scorched the eggs as she was squeezing into the dress. Finally, the photographer says hold still for one whole minute. I wouldn’t be smiling either.

Then there are the kids in 1895. A photographer told the family he’d take beautiful pictures of the little angels for only two dollars and fifty cents. (That’s seventy eight bucks in the present day). Just bring them both in first thing on Wednesday. The angels awoke, ready for their pictures, smiling faces and giggles. Mom puts the girl in her dainty frock with the pinned on frills and the boy in short pants, button-up shoes after looking for the buttonhook for fifteen minutes, and his sailor-like tam hat that he left out in the rain the day before. They round up the happy children and bustle them off to the photographer’s studio only to find that the boy snuck a few cubes of sugar and a plum in his pocket for the trip, which immediately ruptured into a sticky wet glob of goo, soaking through the front of his pants. On arrival, the little darlings started fighting about her dress which the boy said looked like a circus tent with feathers and she retaliated with comments on his hair that smelled like the dog. Once the children were in place, the photographer threatened to clamp the squirming boy’s head in the cast-iron stabilizer that he used to photograph deceased people and the boy started crying, making his eyes red and puffy. Mom got him straightened up by dabbing her handkerchief on her tongue and then wiping his eyes. Mommy spit works miracles. All was well again, and the straight-faced photo was taken to be ready in a few days. For only one dollar more, he would furnish a whole dozen cabinet cards to be distributed to aunts and uncles and grandparents.

Everything taken into consideration, I’ve decided that any picture taken in those times with any trace of a smile was either an accident or the sign of an abnormal family. Thank goodness that today, we can take hundreds of pictures instantly with our cellphone. And about those old family photos from the distant past, it’s a miracle that any of them actually came into being. And no, those serious faces weren’t the product of tight shoes or bad teeth. They just wanted to go home.

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