Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Why Did The Pioneers In Old Photos Rarely Smile?

November 16, 2016
   It is a tired cliche that pioneers and frontiersmen in Old West photos rarely smiled. The stern visages of Wyatt and Doc, Kit and Sitting Bull easily come to mind. In fact I would go as far as to say, out of the thousands of photos we publish in True West every year, less than one percent show someone even partially smiling, much less, showing teeth.

   What's the reason for this?

   Several theories have been put forth: they lived hard lives and couldn't bring themselves to smile, or, they had bad teeth back then, or, the length of the time people had to sit still for exposures, prohibited them from smiling.

   None of these are true, or at least they are not the reason most people didn't smile in Old West photos.

   And frankly, I finally got tired of hearing these goofy theories and assigned historian Rita Ackerman to research what the real reasons are. Rita did a great job of researching and detailing the history of the smile in photographs. I don't want to steal her thunder, but it mainly had to do with not wanting to look foolish (see the great Mark Twain quote, below). So look for this in depth feature in an upcoming True West.

   Plus, there are more than a few photographs of Old West people not only smiling, but grinning ear to ear. You will see some of these incredible early photographs in the article when it comes out.

   In the meantime, take a look at these Edward Curtis photographs of In-dins smiling in the Old West. They apparently didn't get the memo about not smiling in photos. What's amazing, to me, is how contemporary they look.

   Full disclosure, most of these photos are from the twentieth century and that is when smiling began to become in vogue. I would go as far as to say, the smiling makes them seem fake, or inaccurate to the Old West. Do you agree?

Jemez In-din, 1926, An Isleta woman, 1926
Edward S. Curtis

Two Santa Clara Women, c. 1905
By Edward S. Curtis

A Clayoquot Girl, 1900

A Flathead Salish boy, c. 1910
By Edward S. Curtis

"A photograph is a most important document and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever."
—Mark Twain


  1. Thank you for the kind words, Bob. It was fun to research and write about besides being a learning experience. As a long time genealogist I will now look at my ancestor's photos in a new way.

  2. If you were wearing wool long johns, you wouldn't smile.

  3. Anonymous9:04 AM

    Early Glass and tin type photography had very long exposures. People were told not to move. The photos you are showing are after 1900 when film changed and exposures were much shorter. More candid and natural looking pictures could be taken.

    1. Actually, there are quite a few early—1850s—photographs of people smiling ear to ear. The exposure time is actually an oft repeated myth and the pictures prove it. We will be running several of them in the magazine and I might even run some here in the next couple of day.

    2. The smile is nicer, but makes the subjects look like tourists! Next time I go to an old tyme photo place I gotta remember to strike a stone face.


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