Why the Long Faces in Old Photos?

Why the Long Faces in Old Photos?

Every so often I bump into a 19th century photo in which the subjects are grinning. It's a rare event. Occasionally, you see a Mona Lisa smile, but it's difficult to locate an image from the 19th century where folks actually showed teeth the way we do today. So, you're...

Every so often I bump into a 19th century photo in which the subjects are grinning. It’s a rare event. Occasionally, you see a Mona Lisa smile, but it’s difficult to locate an image from the 19th century where folks actually showed teeth the way we do today. So, you’re probably wondering—why the long face in most pictures?

In the beginning, I imagine that sitters were nervous in front of the camera. It was new, and having your picture taken was an uncomfortable procedure.

Look closely at your early photographs and see if you can spot a posing device such as a wooden stand behind the subjects’ feet. This device sometimes extended as far up as the head and had clamps around a person’s waist or head to keep him still for the long exposure time. Would you feel like smiling?

In this 1870s tintype, you can see a chair with the adjustable back. This man holds the the chair back, but if you look closely at his feet, you can see a wooden brace stand.

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You can learn more about photographic patents and these tools in Janice G. Schimmelman’s American Photographic Patents 1840-1880: The Daguerreotype & Wet Plate Era (Carl Mautz, $25.00). Unfortunately, I don’t own a picture of a full clamping device. Anyone got one to share?

I have a small collection of women and babies I call “hidden mothers.” Women hid under blankets and rugs to keep their babies still for the camera. In this photo, a mother or a photographer’s assistant braces the toddler for the picture.

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There were also devices to hold babies that look like medieval instruments of torture.

Let’s not forget another reason individuals didn’t smile for the photographer: dental care. Forget cosmetic dentistry—few folks had a full set of pearly whites. In fact, dentistry was a new profession in the mid-19th century. The online Encyclopedia Britannica has a short article on the history of dental care.

If you have a picture of a “hidden mother,” a smiling ancestor, or a photo that includes a posing device, email it to me and I’ll post it in this space. Both of the images above are from my research picture collection.

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  1. Interesting article Maureen. I’ve always understood that the reason they didn’t smile in photos was because trying to keep a smile on your face for the long exposure time could get rather painful and hard on the face muscles. If you weren’t smiling it was a lot easier to keep your face still. Have you ever tried to sit perfectly still without moving for a long length of time with a smile on your face, I have and it’s unbelievably hard – what I found the hardest though was not to blink!

  2. Great site. I’ll come back. My grandparents were turn of the century photographers in MN. I do have a photograph of the "device" I can send you. Not sure exactly how to do that. Also, I’ve written a novel based on my grandmother’s life and have used some of the old photos from the glass plate collection I have in the novel. The second book coming out next year will use more. I love them all! Oh, and the book coming out next week is called A Flickering Light. If you help me upload the photo, I’ll send it along. Jane Kirkpatrick

  3. Let us not forget that photographers were not just down the street like they are today. My family lived in the rural farming areas. It took some of them 1/2 day to reach the photographers. By then I think I would be cranky about having my picture taken.

  4. Besides the difficulty of holding still for a photograph, I thought that the solemn faces were a throwback to portrait painting, which often, although not always, shows a sober face. It would be hard for many people to hold a smile or repeat it at a subsequent sitting, for oil paintings required several sittings to complete. And perhaps some artists had difficulty capturing a smile — painting portraits is a skill that not every painter has. Anyway, whatever the reason, isn’t it wonderful we have the photos of them all?

  5. This has always been a sore subject for me. My parents religiously took me in for a yearly photograph. (late 1930s through jr. high in early 1950s). I could always tell which photo my parents would pick … the very ugliest. My dad had the theory that teeth were never to show in photos. They would have the photo made into a big framed picture for the living room. Then, my friends would come in, stare at the photos, and then usually say, "Why are you crying in the picture?" When I went to college, my freshman picture was wonderful. I had never seen a photo of me that I liked. When I cleaned out their house to help move them, I found this photo under the lining in their chest of drawers, along with my wedding photo (that I also liked).