You get the impression that “back then” people didn’t smile very much.  View “old” statues and paintings and see people rendered with serious looks on their faces (except perhaps for the Mona Lisa’s subtle smile and the occasional “happy” peasants).  When photography arrived in the mid-19th Century, nothing changed – all serious expressions – nary a smile to be found.

What might have been  going on?  Was “life” then a more serious and somber experience?  After all, life expectancy was limited, disease prevalent, work exhausting and insecurity constant.  But come on – there had to be lighter, happier moments in between.  Of course statues and paintings were almost always executed for the elite and powerful.  They were “serious” people with demanding responsibilities.  Serious portrayals were needed to confirm that fact.  But it also may be that artists found that depicting “smiles” was exceptionally challenging.  The lips elongate.  The face becomes disorderly, creases everywhere.  Far easier it was to present a visage frozen, an undisturbed, continuous facial landscape.  Maybe, though, it was all about the teeth.  In reality, teeth were chipped, crooked, often missing  – “dentistry” barely existed.  A smile would reveal such imperfections.  Then there is the early photography explanation centered around the lengthy exposure times required before the subject could be captured.  Better to look serious than to try to maintain a natural smile (no easy matter) for so long.

When smiles became the norm, indeed obligatory in photography and more significantly in social interaction, requires a bit of research.  Surely it has something to do with the spread of cameras to the masses early in the 20-th Century.  Photos taken by just about anyone began to outpace studio sessions.  Formal “shots” remained but increasingly “candid”, spontaneous photos appeared.

Surely, the most convincing explanation would come from an examination of cultural changes.  When did the smile emerge as a shorthand sign of happiness, contentment and an engaging personality?  And why did it become so important to convey to others that you were both non-threatening and cheerful?

Starting at birth the smile is viewed as an essential milestone, a signal of sociability, a way of smoothing over rougher edges, and a reflection of inner contentment.  Consider the effort that goes into making a baby smile.  Assuming it’s not gas, everyone around concludes it’s one happy baby with a bright future.  And so it goes throughout our lives.  As for photographs, it is the rare person who can resist (“smile for the camera”) not smiling.  We’ve come a long way.

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