September 18, 1900, from the Musser Albums


When we think about our ancestors, we often view them as monoliths: stone-faced and stoical in black and white pictures on our mantles. Surely their world was so detached from ours now, there is nothing we could have had in common.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Their straight faces in the advent of photography came from a combination of necessity and cultural norms. Early on, exposure times could range from three minutes to fifteen minutes. That’s a lot of time to sit perfectly still and smile! There was also the long-standing tradition of portraiture. Early photographs were less about capturing the world as it was, and more about showing a person looking their best for posterity. Of course, that meant no smiling. It simply wasn’t proper.

The first commercial camera was 1888’s Kodak #1 camera. While amateur photography initially followed the zeitgeist in regards to posed portraits, this idea eventually began to relax. People could take pictures of what they wanted, no need to get dressed up in their Sunday best. As photography became even more widespread and accessible, we see the pretention dropped almost entirely. There was still a time and a place for serious, posed photos, but people were starting to have fun.

Through these photos, we get a glimpse at real expressions of joy: candid shots of friends laughing together, pets in funny situations, children at play. We have scoured our archives for photos that show just that.

Many of the subjects in these photos are unidentified. If you recognize any of these smiling faces, please let us know!