Birdies, prunes, cheese and whiskey: smiling (or not) for the camera
December 19, 2014 8:37 AM   Subscribe

... in the Victorian era (1837-1901), a small, tightly controlled mouth was considered beautiful. They took their cues from much of Europe's fine-art portraiture. Some say photographers even suggested those posing say "prunes" to heighten the effect. Smiling was something captured on children, peasants and drunkards, hardly something you'd want for your family legacy.

Then, there was the matter of oral hygiene.
Advances in dental care and ubiquitous technology: why people started smiling for the camera, and why we say cheese, with a whistling bird, some whiskey, and a little flash game thrown in for good measure.

The dawn of the 20th century marked many milestones: the Wright brothers’ first flight, Henry Ford’s Model T auto-mobile, and numerous advances in dental care (PDF), instruments, equipment, and restorative dentistry.

With people having a better teeth to show off to the camera, there was still the issue of patience. Early portraits required people to sit still for lengthy periods, leading to the use of head clamps and in some cases, the opium-based pain relief drug laudanum, to keep portrait-sitters motionless and subdued. As technology advanced, the time required to sit still shortened. By 1901, looking stern for the camera wasn't so vogue (Google books preview, "Did Mrs. Cheeseman Smile?" in an issue of The Photographic Times from 1901). But for most people, photographs were a thing taken by photographers in studios. Enter George Eastman's photography revolution, which kicked off in 1888.

The Kodak No. 1 was a simple black box, pre-loaded with enough paper-based roll film to take one hundred photographs. The directions were simple enough: aim your camera, turn the key, pull the string and press the button. Once you're done with 100 shots, send the camera box off to the factory for the film to be developed and printed. The camera was $25, and it cost $10 each time you had to send it in for reloading/developing — approximately $630 and $250 in current dollars. The process became easier, and cheaper, with the $1 Kodak Brownie that you could load with film yourself, "so simple that it can be easily operated by any School Boy or Girl." For less than $2, you can buy the camera, film and get your pictures processed. The first Brownie camera was shipped on Feb. 8, 1900 and "gave birth to the snapshot."

It seems so common to say "cheese" in relatively modern times, it could be hard imagining any other phrase. People were still asked to say "Prunes" in 1906 (Google books preview of an issue of The Numismatist), but for some jolly youth, the word evoked grins rather than a proper pout. It wasn't until the 1940s that casual photographers everywhere asked people to say "cheese." The most cited early record of this smile-triggering word is an article in October, 1943, where then-Ambassador Joseph E. Davies said
"I learned that from a politician," Mr. Davies chuckled. "An astute politician, a very great politician. But, of course, I cannot tell you who he was..."
Most assume he's talking about President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Davies is also cited earlier that year with the article title: Ambassador's Rule To Coax a Smile: "Just Say Cheese!"

That one weird trick was soon widely used, and it was included in the 1945 book 1001 Ways to Improve Your Photographs (Google books snippet view). When you say cheese, the cheeks tend to lift, the corners of the mouth tend to turn up, and the teeth tend to show, though the same thing happens with the words "whiskey," "breeze," "ready," "money," and anything ending in a long "E." In fact, "whiskey" is the word in many Latin American countries, but each country has a word or two most commonly used, collected there on Omniglot.

If you're looking for more old photography tricks and lingo, "look at the birdie" or "watch the birdie" once referred to metal birds that wouldn't flash (as described incorrectly in that closed auction page), but would be attached to a rubber tube and squeeze bulb with water, that when squeezed, would make the bird "whistle" to amuse small children.

If you're looking for and educational game relating to early photography studios, McCord Museum has little game to test your knowledge by playing as a customer or an apprentice photographer in a virtual re-creation of William Notman's a 19th-century photography studio in Montreal.
posted by filthy light thief (10 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Please tell me you did this because of Dinosaur Comics this morning.
posted by rikschell at 8:51 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The only joke I really remember from the non-starter that was "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is a sort-of urban legend going around the films' frontier town that somewhere, somebody is supposed to have smiled for a camera. The fact is treated with awe, and when the photo is finally discovered, it is treated with amazement.
posted by maxsparber at 8:52 AM on December 19, 2014

We were just talking about this at work. The question of smiling (and "bad teeth") also has a history in painted portraiture - we found and discussed this good piece about that.
posted by Miko at 8:54 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Please tell me you did this because of Dinosaur Comics this morning.


Nope, I was thinking about "cheese" as the magic "smile for the camera" word for a few days, and started compiling this sprawling post.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

That McCord interactive is ADORABLE
posted by Miko at 9:02 AM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't want a bunch of apes baring their teeth at me, even if they are mostly hairless. The Victorians got this right.
posted by thelonius at 9:14 AM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Apparently, smiling in portraiture was a scandalous revolution, started by Marie Antoinette.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:25 AM on December 19, 2014

Two words: duck lips.
posted by postel's law at 10:05 AM on December 19, 2014

Previously: 'smile regimes'

Great post.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:22 AM on December 19, 2014

Wilfully obscure theme song for this thread...
posted by Devonian at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2014

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