Picture Power: Proof that Victorians weren’t as serious as you thought

“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

Vacation sports at the seaside, 1897

I don’t have to tell you that Victorians aren’t exactly known for their broad smiles and light-hearted humor. Unlike today, smiling for a photo simply wasn’t a thing that people did, as Mark Twain exemplifies in the quote above. This lack of friendly grins has somewhat influenced how we view Victorians from our modern perspective, perhaps making them seem more stuffy and grave than they actually were.

There are a ton of given reasons why Victorians didn’t smile in photos, such as long exposure times, high costs for having portraits taken, poor dental hygiene, and, perhaps most importantly, it was simply seen as bad etiquette. But luckily, there’s still some evidence that Victorians just couldn’t help cracking a smile or breaking the usual stiff pose every now and then. We’ve gathered together a few of our favorite shots of Victorians seeming a little less…Victorian. Enjoy!

Yale men

Three fashionable young men at Yale, c. 1883.

Evelyn Winchester

Evelyn Winchester.

Victorian couple

Photo from 1880-1900 of a happy couple, discovered in Scotland.

Tea time

Tea for two?

Victorian woman mid-jump

Unknown Victorian in mid-jump (date also unknown).

Two ladies making a Snow Lady, c. 1892

Photo from The Strand magazine, January 1892, of two women making a Snow Lady. The caption said that “No foundation of any kind was used, and no sticks or wires were concealed under the figure for the purpose of supporting head, body, or arms. An enlargement of the original photograph was shown at the Photographic Exhibition during last autumn, and gave rise to many remarks, sage and otherwise.” It looks like a photoshop to me, but I’ll take their word on it!

Victorian woman

Unknown woman and unknown date. But isn’t it a great photo?

Victorian humor

Another anonymous woman. This tintype sold on ebay for a pretty penny awhile back.

Victorian passport photos

Evidence suggests that these photos are passport photos from the 1890s.

Smiling Edwardians

A group of smiling Edwardians.

Queen Victoria smiling

And finally, proof that even Queen Victoria smiled at least one time!

We hope that seeing the lighter side of Victorians made you smile! Let us know in the comments which photo is your favorite.

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13 replies
  1. Larry
    Larry says:

    People are people no matter what epoch they live in. Just so happens photography was in its infancy and people couldn’t express themselves like they do now.

    • Phillip
      Phillip says:

      I’m not certain, but I recall reading, that the reason the subjects, in a majority of vintage photographs, seem morose, is due to the long exposure times.

  2. Melcoo
    Melcoo says:

    The passport photos of the couple, that could be from the present day.
    I know I read before, people posing for photograph often had to stand still for 5-10 minutes.

  3. Gisli
    Gisli says:

    Queen Victoria was quite joyful, at least before the long mourning period after the death of her beloved husband.

  4. Zilkenian
    Zilkenian says:

    Up until now I always thought victorian people were really serious because of society, but I guess the human nature can’t be stopped by anything.
    The normal photos made them look elegant and polite:
    These photos make them look human.
    And I can’t stop loving them.

  5. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I have read letters and diaries of my Victorian grandparents. It seems the Victorians were very fond of practical jokes and tricks. Sometimes it would take weeks to set up a practical joke.


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