In The Time Of Victorian Portraits, The Quickest Way To Look Like An Idiot Was By Smiling

Published February 23, 2015
Updated September 4, 2020

Whether haunting or silly, these Victorian portraits reveal what photography was like well over a century ago.

Mourning Widow
A mourning widow and her children, c. 1900.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Victorian Family Photos
Etsy

Little Judge
c. early 1890s.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria with the Princesses Victoria, Elisabeth, Irene, and Alix of Hesse, c. 1879.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Siblings
5-year-old Percival H. W. Parsons and 2-year-old F. Herbert W. Parsons, c. 1867.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Baby Mother Dead
"Darling Little Ernest," English Albumen Post-Mortem Carte de Visite, taken November 6, 1868.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Boy Tennis
c. 1900.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Brothers
Two boys from Wyanet, Illinois.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Chubby Baby
c. 1890.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Cool Kid
Taken in Colfax, Illinois, c. 1890s.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Dead Woman
Deceased woman, c. 1850.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

French Girl
Portrait of a French girl in Paris, c. 1865.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Girl Tennis
c. 1900.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Sisters
Two sisters in Colfax, Illinois, c. early 1890s.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Top Hat
Taken in Logansport, Indiana. Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Couple
Wright Family, c. 1860s.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Curls
Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Dead Baby
A deceased boy holding a toy and flower, c. 1855.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Dead Woman
Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Dog Girl
Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Family Portrait
Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Fat Baby
Nellie Burr was born in Illinois in 1868. This picture was July 1, 1874.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Girl Dog
Little Zdena with a dog called Broček.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Grandparents
An elderly couple identified as Daniel Chaffee and Catherine Newell. Chaffee was born June 3rd, 1783 and died in 1859. Newell was born November 24, 1805 and died less than a month after her husband.Flickr / "Victorian Photographic Portraits of People" Group

Bearded Lady
A Victorian bearded lady.Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Donkey Man
Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Girl Dog Shepard
Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Laughing Couple
Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Victorian Couple
Folkestone Couple in Mourning, English Albumen Carte de Visite, c. 1885.Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Madam
Mrs. A. Bankart in Widow's Dress, English Albumen Carte de Visite, c. 1862.Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Schoolgirls
Vienna, Austria.Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Smile Victorian
Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Smiling Victorian Sisters
Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Smiling Victorian
Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Smiling Victorians Couple
Flickr / "The Smiling Victorian" Group

Victorian life must have been so much fun. If you weren't dead or about to die due to infectious diseases, you were always trying to act or at least look that way.

In those early days of photography, exposures were long: The shortest method (the daguerreotype method) lasted 15 minutes. This was actually a major improvement from how long it took to shoot the very first photograph in 1826, which took all of eight hours to produce.

Common knowledge has always pointed to these long exposure times as the reason why Victorians were rarely seen smiling in photos. While it was certainly a contributing factor, the real reason that these early Victorian portraits look so somber is that people didn't smile that much in life.

Oft quoted was the wisdom "Nature gave us lips to conceal our teeth." Flashing a big ol' toothy grin was seen as classless. The only people to readily do so were either drunk or stage performers. In either case, smiling in Victorian portraits made people appear buffoonish as if they were modern-day court jesters.

Furthermore, for some, sealed lips was a very conscious effort to conceal one's teeth — orthodontia hadn't yet been invented, nor was dentistry in common practice.

Victorian-Era Portrait Of Mark Twain

Wikimedia CommonsMark Twain

Thus, in the early days of studio portraiture, the desire to create regal, non-smiling portraits actually gave us the precursor to "say cheese": Instead of the wide-mouthed grin of "cheeeeeese," studio photographers encouraged their subjects to "say prunes" instead.

Moreover, the idea with long Victorian photo exposures wasn't to capture the moment, but the essence of the individual in a way that represented who they were for their entire life.

As Mark Twain said, there would be "nothing more damning than a silly, foolish smile fixed forever."


Intrigued by these Victorian portraits? Next, have a look at 37 haunting photos of Victorian-era mental asylum patients. Then, check out this astounding Victorian's guide to sex.

All That's Interesting
All That's Interesting is a Brooklyn-based digital publisher that seeks out the stories to illuminate the past, present, and future.