Why do we smile?

By Carol / August 5, 2013 /

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.

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  1. Penelope J on August 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Fascinating history of “say cheese!” No wonder people in old photos always look so serious and in awe of the camera! And upper-class British were described as “tight-lipped.”

    My English grandmother, born mid-19th century, would only stretch her mouth into a little smile. She said it was so she didn’t get wrinkles, but she wouldn’t open it much even to speak. Of course, bad teeth. For a long time I believed it wasn’t done to open my mouth when I smiled, but now I have lots of smile wrinkles.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 5, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      Cherish those smile wrinkles, Penelope! I don’t have any photographs of my grandmothers (both born late 1800’s) smiling. They both lived into the 1970s. One of them was a very funny woman, but bring out the camera and she sobered right up.

  2. Flora Morris Brown on August 5, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Hi Carol,

    Thanks so much for this fascinating piece of information. In the revision of my book on happiness I start off sharing how my mother’s insisted on smiles when she was taking pictures with her Kodak Brownie. I always wondered why folks in old photos were so somber, even downright sad looking.

    Our childhood picture-taking was just the opposite of the old-timers who worried about their teeth or feared being thought low-class. No matter what our mood before the camera came out, we were to flash happy smiles for the photo. I continued that practice years later when shooting photos of my kids and grandkids. Smile! Snap!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm

      You make an interesting point, Flora. In old photos, the people looked somber/sad regardless of the real emotion they felt. Now people smile and portray happiness no matter the emotion they feel. Hmmm.

      Getting an entire country to say Cheese shows the power of a marketing campaign! My granddaughters came visiting this past weekend and each time I got out my camera, my son told his daughters “Say Cheese for Grandma.” We have the most forced smiles you can imagine. But they’re smiles!

  3. Flora Morris Brown on August 5, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Oops! Ignore that apostrophe s after mother in the second line. That’s what happens when you make fast revisions.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm

      You’re forgiven. I do it all the time!

  4. Stephen Crabbe on August 6, 2013 at 5:15 am

    Thank you, Carol, for a very interesting piece! I have a lot of those gloomy old faces in my collection too. The photography world of the World War 1 era is important to me too as I work on my second book with that setting. From my research to date it looks as though the Kodak Brownie and the Cheese Revolution didn’t hit our Australian society until quite a bit later than in the US.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 6, 2013 at 7:56 am

      I expect it took Kodak a while to ramp up their marketing of the job of photography worldwide. And some cultures resist the smile to this day. Skepticism of cameras in general as stealing the soul. Concern that photographs are a form of idolatry. And some are just more stoic. Are you smiling now?

  5. Paulette Mahurin on August 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Really enjoyed this one. So interesting how habits and patterns come to be. It’s so true that photographs from times gone by, way gone by, are without smiling faces. Fascinating history lesson from you explaining why.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 6, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      Thanks, Paulette. Writing historical fiction has been a learning process every step of the way!

  6. Mary Gottschalk on August 7, 2013 at 8:54 am

    This one was really fun … I presume the photo is of the grandmother that inspired Liddie. And despite all our conversations about photography in the early 1990’s, I never thought about bad teeth. But seems pretty obvious for the pre-fluoride days!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 7, 2013 at 9:19 am

      Thanks, Mary. Actually the photo is of my great grandparents. I just fixed caption. These two are the inspiration for Liddie’s parents. Do they look more familiar now? This article really expanded my thinking about photography – and changed the way I wrote some scenes. Proving it’s never too late to find the right bit of historical detail!

  7. Shirley Hershey Showalter on August 11, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    Fascinating indeed, Carol. My own collection confirms the difference between older photos and current ones. Another difference to investigate might be social class and the cultures of other countries. I see you mention stealing the soul in your comment above. I observed seriousness around the camera in Haiti in the 1980’s.

    I love the way you research. I’m sure it will show up as a great strength in your novel.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 11, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      Social class is, indeed, a factor in smiling, Shirley. The upper classes conveyed their gravitas by standing solemnly in front of their estates. Even some cultures within the United States do not appreciate being photographed. The Amish, for instance.

      I love reading historical fiction to learn just these kinds of things. I hope readers of my novel will find the historical details interesting.

  8. Author Catherine Lyon on August 18, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Hello Carol,
    What a very nice website! I’ now following, and also on TWITTER! Thanks for your generous RT’S…I surely will be back Often! I’m a Fan 🙂
    Warm Regards, Catherine

    • Carol Bodensteiner on August 18, 2013 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks for following, Catherine. I’m delighted to connect with you here and on Twitter. All the best.

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