The selfie stick and “duck face” may be modern sensations, but goofing around in front of the camera certainly isn’t. Indeed, these rare photos suggest that even the po-faced, puritanical Victorians may have enjoyed larking about when the lens was on them.
In fact, here you will see cheeky children grinning at the camera, well-dressed gentlemen gurning and women of all ages laughing. Suffice to say, then, that these pictures are far removed from the stereotypical view of Victorians being straight-laced and proper.
This idea may have come about because the camera first went on public sale in 1839, and it was an instant hit. What’s more, the Victorians were the first generation to be subjected to this new way of capturing a moment, memory or face for posterity.
Indeed, people from all walks of life wanted to have their picture taken, usually in a portrait style. And, undoubtedly, most of the pictures from the time made the Victorians look very serious indeed.
Mind you, there is certainly an element of truth in the notion that many people in the Victorian era were miserable. The age was, after all, a pretty tough time to be alive: many people lived in slums and, for little money, worked in dangerous jobs. And they were the lucky ones; the most unfortunate were condemned to “poor houses.”
Society was also highly religious and, to a large extent, morally uptight. Queen Victoria, for instance, was usually pictured looking glum, and according to legend she uttered the phrase “we are not amused” after watching a musical comedy.
But that’s not the main reason that most Victorians appear so dour in photos taken at the time. After all, such pictures rarely feature men and women who would have been living in the poorhouse; having a photo taken was not cheap.
Indeed, photography was still in its infancy, so having your portrait taken could be seriously expensive. Unsurprisingly, then, if someone thought that they would only be able to afford to have one picture taken for posterity, they wanted to look their best.
As Mark Twain said, “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.” And while a few people might have disagreed, it seems that most people felt the same way.
Additionally, this was not a simple matter of “point and click” snaps. The photographer needed to expose the film for far longer than is needed these days. Therefore, having to sit perfectly still for up to a minute meant that most people sat straight upright and kept a neutral expression on their faces, which was much easier to maintain than a smile.
And there’s one other reason why people in old photographs look so serious: bad dental care. Certainly, even wealthy individuals would often have had unattractive – or missing – teeth, so few would have been comfortable about flashing a toothy grin to the camera.
But, as these rare photos show, not everyone behaved all prim and proper in front of the camera. In fact, just like today, the people of Victorian times liked to play the fool, too.
In 2014 archivists at the Woodhorn Museum in Ashington, England, uncovered a treasure trove of fascinating photographs from days gone by. They show men, women and children – most of them from the county of Northumbria – in high spirits.
This Victorian gentleman, for instance, was obviously happy to ignore Mark Twain’s words of wisdom. He would have needed to hold this goofy face for some time in order for the cameraman to get this memorable snap.
And it wasn’t just gents playing the fool in front of the camera. Indeed, this Victorian lady showed that “duck face” was around long before Instagram.
And cross-dressing for fun is no new invention, either, as this wacky group portrait shows. Resplendent in her top hat, this Victorian lady is surrounded by smiling friends, one of them dressed as a nun.
Meanwhile, as the technology became cheaper – and more portable – the first “photo booths” started to appear. So while some people took advantage of this to get a serious portrait of themselves, others saw it as a bit of fun. This goofy gent’s manic grin wouldn’t be allowed on any modern-day passport, that’s for sure.
Within a few years of cameras being launched, then, they were being used to document pretty much everything, from state occasions to romantic getaways. Moreover, as cameras got lighter and more portable, they could also be taken to the seaside, the one place where even the gloomiest of Brits could be trusted to let their hair down.
But it wasn’t just the quirky upper classes of England who were known to mess around for pictures. Here’s Tsar Nicholas II of Russia larking around with regal buddies the Prince of Greece and the Prince of Denmark in 1899. It’s likely that Queen Victoria would not have been amused.
Alas, the Victorians will probably never fully escape the stereotype of being morally uptight curmudgeons. But they did have a lighter side, and as pictures such as these suggest, people from 150 years ago probably had a lot more in common with us today than we might think.