Why do we smile?

Line up for a photo. Someone says, “Say cheese!” Everyone grins. It’s automatic, isn’t it?  But it wasn’t always so. Until 1900,  smiles in photographs were as rare as hen’s teeth.

My grandparents, c 1890

My great grandparents, c 1890

Research into early 20th century photography for the WWI-era novel I’m writing led me to a fascinating article titled “Why We Say “Cheese”: Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography,” by Dr. Christina Kotchemidova.  (To read the entire article, click here.)

Among the reasons Kotchemidova shares for the grim faces in 19th century photographs:

  • Bad teeth. No one wanted to show off a mouth of missing or rotted teeth. It was only with the rise in dental care that Hollywood stars led the way in showing their pearly whites.
  • Etiquette and beauty demanded a controlled mouth. A small mouth was considered more beautiful. At most, a contained Mona Lisa smile could be acceptable. Photographers urged sitters to say “prunes” to draw mouths into the appropriate shape.
  • A grin was considered low class – characteristic of peasants, drunkards, children, and halfwits. The only illustrated example of a person smiling in American 19th century art is Huckleberry Finn – an Irish peasant child.
  • The exposures were long. Maintaining a smile for the extended period of time sitters had to remain still was difficult if not impossible.

Changing society’s views on smiling in photographs didn’t begin in earnest until Kodak introduced the $1 Brownie camera in 1900, putting cameras in the hands of the masses. Even then it took a sustained marketing campaign to convince people that being photographed was something that could be fun. Kodak advertised heavily in national magazines, touting the ease and joy of capturing vacations, outings and picnics. The Kodak girl was everywhere, and she seemed to enjoy herself tremendously when she was taking pictures.

Kodak GirlIn addition to the joy of picture taking, Kodak set out to make the task of the “sitter” joyful, too. Kodak instructed professional photographers in how to lure people in, adopting terminology such as “studio” in place of “the operation room.” They encouraged photographers to do in-home photographs so people could relax in their own surroundings and to focus on taking photos during holidays, a time when, presumably, people are already happy.

Kodak sponsored photo contests, promising photographers both recognition and cash for participating. The winning pictures were used in Kodak ads, so the measure for “good pictures” was entirely a function of the advertising ideal. Over the decades, Kodak judges invariably rewarded pictures showing smiling faces.

By the 1940s, Kotchemidova says, “the smile was essential to popular photographic culture.” At least in the United States. Not all cultures appreciate smiling for the camera or even being photographed at all.

So when someone tells you to “Say Cheese!”, remember it wasn’t always so. And if you choose not to smile, now you have some historical reasons not to. Or to say, “Prunes,” instead.