Victorian Family Photos

This is what a happy family looked like way back when. Source: Etsy

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. That helps explain why, at least in the early days of portrait photography, it was somewhat more socially acceptable to take posed–albeit solemn–pictures with dead bodies than it is today (see: #funeralselfie). Post-mortem portraits were meant to be commemorative, especially in the case of infants and children.

Post-mortem photography took place around the time people started to make the transition from painted portraits to portrait photography. In the early days, exposures were long: the shortest one (“daguerreotypes”) lasted fifteen minutes. This was actually a major improvement from how long it took to shoot the 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 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 made people appear buffoonish, as if they were modern day court jesters.

In the early days of studio portraiture, the desire to create regal profiles 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. Apparently, duckface was preferred to a smile. For some, the pursed lip was a very conscious effort to conceal their teeth: orthodontia wasn’t yet a thing, nor were 9 out of 10 dentists recommending Trident.

Marveling, too, at the permanence of these photographs, the idea 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” — of course, Twain is now immortalized in this photograph. Looks like #bae caught him shirtless.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England. She's currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Hippocampus Magazine, The Atlantic, The Mary Sue, and Quartz.
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