What did rural life look like in 1910?

Early 20th century photos inspire writing.

Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.

Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.

Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915.  I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.

A good day hunting.

A good day hunting.

My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.

GAH - Model T

One of the first cars in the neighborhood.

This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.

GAH - Picking Corn

Taking a break.


Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.

This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.


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.