Smiling Victorians: why it's a myth that our ancestors didn't smile for pictures
Our image of the Victorians is shaped by the photographs we see in history books – stern, austere and relentlessly severe. Yet there was a playful side to our 19th-century ancestors, and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones has the proof. Here he introduces a selection of portraits that show the sitters doing something entirely unexpected: smiling
As a historian who’s always searching for the text or the image that makes us re-evaluate the past, I’ve become preoccupied with looking for photographs that show our Victorian ancestors smiling (what better way to shatter the image of 19th-century prudery?). I’ve found quite a few, and – since I started posting them on Twitter – they have been causing quite a stir. People have been surprised to see evidence that Victorians had fun and could, and did, laugh. They are noting that the Victorians suddenly seem to become more human as the hundred-or-so years that separate us fade away through our common experience of laughter.
Of course, I need to concede that my collection of ‘Smiling Victorians’ makes up only a tiny percentage of the vast catalogue of photographic portraiture created between 1840 and 1900, the majority of which show sitters posing miserably and stiffly in front of painted backdrops, or staring absently into the middle distance. How do we explain this trend?
Why didn't many Victorians smile in photographs?
During the 1840s and 1850s, in the early days of photography, exposure times were notoriously long: the daguerreotype photographic method (producing an image on a silvered copper plate) could take several minutes to complete, resulting in blurred images as sitters shifted position or adjusted their limbs. The thought of holding a fixed grin as the camera performed its magical duties was too much to contemplate, and so a non-committal blank stare became the norm.
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But exposure times were much quicker by the 1880s, and the introduction of the Box Brownie and other portable cameras meant that, though slow by today’s digital standards, the exposure was almost instantaneous. Spontaneous smiles were relatively easy to capture by the 1890s, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of why Victorians still hesitated to smile.
One explanation might be the loss of dignity displayed through a cheesy grin. “Nature gave us lips to conceal our teeth,” ran one popular Victorian maxim, alluding to the fact that before the birth of proper dentistry, mouths were often in a shocking state of hygiene. A flashing set of healthy and clean, regular ‘pearly whites’ was a rare sight in Victorian society, the preserve of the super-rich (and even then, dental hygiene was not guaranteed).
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The thought of holding a fixed grin as the camera performed its magical duties was too much to contemplate, and so a non-committal blank stare became the norm
A toothy grin (especially when there were gaps or blackened gnashers) lacked class: drunks, tramps, prostitutes and buffoonish music hall performers might gurn and grin with a smile as wide as Lewis Carroll’s gum-exposing Cheshire Cat, but it was not a becoming look for properly bred persons. Even Mark Twain, a man who enjoyed a hearty laugh, said that when it came to photographic portraits there could be “nothing more damning than a silly, foolish smile fixed forever”.
Part of the reticence towards the tooth-exposing photo lies in the fact that, during the 1830s and 1840s, the new mechanical art form of photography had grown out of the old, aristocratic tradition of the oil portrait, which sought to convey nobility and elegance. Now, the burgeoning middle classes and even the new celebrities of the age – such as ‘Professional Beauties’ (like Lily Langtry) and actors – attempted to mimic this aristocratic grandeur via the medium of photographic portraiture. Smiling was therefore unnecessary; laughing was taboo.
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Yet this was also the age of comic greats – Dickens, Gilbert and Sullivan, Wilde and the musical hall stars Dan Leno and Vesta Tilley – and we know from the literature, songs, drama and graphic arts of the period that the Victorians loved to laugh. It was an essential component of good health. As the 1875 Railway Book of Fun proclaimed: cheerfulness was a “Christian duty” and a “proper means to maintain mental hilarity”. The possession of a good sense of humour was an attractive quality and was much looked for in a romantic partner; newspaper ‘Matrimonial Advertisements’ often emphasised “jolly” and “fondness of fun” as key requisites in a young man or lady.
The “We are not amused” slogan has tarnished Queen Victoria and her age for long enough. It is time to reclaim Victorian laughter. After all, the queen herself had what we might call a ‘cracking sense of humour’, and laughed often, even in her final years. She had a “wonderful laugh” wrote Vicky of Prussia, “and grandmama often laughed till she was red in the face and even till she cried”.
Take a closer look at seven pictures of smiling Victorians…
A playful smile
This is one of the earliest representations of the smile in Victorian photography, captured in an image taken using the daguerreotype process. Wearing an elegant day dress, the young lady has placed her hands modestly in her lap and her fingers are interlocked in a pose typical of the period. Quite untypical though is the charming, shy smile that unexpectedly emerges on her face, revealing clean, white teeth. There is a real playfulness in her eyes too. What was it that was said or done behind the camera to make her break the rules of sitting?
The giggling gent
There’s always one! As this family sit outside their home in a formal, but relaxed, pose, the photographer clicks the button early and captures a middle-aged gent laughing with abandon – possibly at his own joke. He is a ‘Gigglemug’ par excellence, a Victorian slang word for a “habitually smiling face”. The philosopher Herbert Spencer, in his 1860 article ‘The Physiology of Laughter’, surely had such a face in mind when he wrote: “Excess of nervous energy must discharge itself, and there results an efflux through the motor nerves to various classes of the muscles, producing the half-convulsive actions we term Laughter.”
Three happy boys
Laughter is infectious – at least it is, to judge from this group of northern street boys photographed by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. It is a scene that could be lifted from Oliver Twist: “Bates uttered an exclamation of amusement and delight; and, bursting into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. ‘Ha! ha! ha!’, he roared… and then laughed louder than before.”
The Kodak moment arrived in 1888, as relatively inexpensive cameras flooded the market. Portable and lightweight, the handheld camera could travel everywhere, and helped create a vogue for images of the poor.
This hand-tinted photograph captures the moment a big, happy baby, comfortable on its mother’s lap, laughs. The photographer captures the mother’s delightful smirk, a demi-smile described by Dickens as being used “by private ladies… who don’t care so much about looking clever”.
The happy bond between mother and child was at the centre of the Victorian phenomenon of child-idolisation (think Lewis Carroll’s obsession with Alice, the daughter of Henry George Liddell, and the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland).
Yet, as Dickens lays bare in Great Expectations, not all children were lucky enough to enjoy such a bond. ”As I never saw my father or my mother,” recalls the novel’s hero, Pip, ”and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones…”
The smiling Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria smiles from her carriage during the celebrations marking her golden jubilee in Newport on the Isle of Wight. The queen’s mournful legacy masks a wicked humour and a passion for salacious gossip. Her “We are not amused” put-down may have been addressed to Sir Arthur Bigge, a man said to have been notorious for his crass jokes. When he told one of them in front of a squirming royal household, the queen spoke on behalf of them all and told him to be quiet. But she was not using the royal ‘we’; Victoria simply meant that nobody found Sir Arthur funny.
On another occasion, the queen was sitting next to an elderly admiral at a dinner. Victoria asked him about the progress of repairs to the hull of an old ship, but the admiral did not quite hear her. And so she shifted the conversation: “And how is your sister?” “Ah,” he replied, realising what Victoria had originally asked, “She’ll be fine, ma’am, when we turn her over and scrape the barnacles off her bottom.” The queen was convulsed with laughter and had to hide her face in a handkerchief.
A kiss beneath the mistletoe
An unknown elderly couple – probably husband and wife – pose for the camera at Christmastime. Her broad smile gives no hint of teeth; the probability is that she did not have many. The most common cure for toothache and other dental problems was extraction – and caps, fillings or other fixes to make chipped or broken teeth more aesthetically pleasing were either unknown or not widely available. In fact, it was not until 1921 that the practice of dentistry was limited to those who were professionally trained and qualified.
Two women, both wearing smart walking suits, stand nonchalantly on the beam of a wooden sty or fence. They are accompanied by a gentleman gripping the hem of his trousers and raising his leg high in an athletic stunt.
Victorian humour was based largely on physical slapstick of the kind popularised in music hall acts or circus clowning, combined with wordplay and riddles. Typical ‘jokes’ of the late 19th century ran like this: “If all the seas were dried up, what would Neptune say? I really haven’t got a notion.” And, of course: “Who is the greatest chicken-killer in Shakespeare? Macbeth, because he did murder most fowl.”
Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is a historian based at Cardiff University. You can see more of his images of happy Victorians on Twitter at #SmilingVictorians
This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine