Victorian Portraits
Victorian Family Photos
Little Judge
Mourning Widow
In Victorian Times, 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 fifteen 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 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.

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.

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 Victorian portraits 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 himself is now immortalized in the photograph below.

Victorian Portraits

Wikimedia Commons


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.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.
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