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

Published February 23, 2015
Updated November 9, 2023

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

Mourning Widow
Victorian Family Photos
Little Judge
Queen Victoria
In The Time Of Victorian Portraits, The Quickest Way To Look Like An Idiot Was By Smiling
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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.

Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Cox, Savannah. "In The Time Of Victorian Portraits, The Quickest Way To Look Like An Idiot Was By Smiling.", February 23, 2015, Accessed June 23, 2024.