Skip to main content

Why didn’t your ancestors smile? A local museum has the answer

Did you ever wonder why people in early photographs rarely smiled?

Well, the answer to that question is part of a new experience, opening this Saturday at the Woodstock Museum.

Don’t Smile explains the history of photography in Canada using vintage images captured in Oxford County.

A few date back over 160 years.

Most displayed are reproductions set amidst accompanying stories.

Adam Pollard, the collections curator, said it was the only way to ensure the original photographs were kept away from damaging light.

Woodstock Museum Collections Coordinator Adam Pollard shows a glass plate negative against a light on June 8, 2023. (Sean Irvine/CTV News London)“And that way we can keep the collection safe for many, many years while still producing an image for the public to see,” he explained to CTV News London.

In the earliest days of photography, copper plates and chemicals were used to produce an image. Glass plates came next, and they made portraits affordable to most families.

Still, it was expensive, so taking a picture became an event everyone dressed up for.

And, just like today, many early residents brought along their beloved pets.

But getting the pictures to turnout was not easy. People in the 1860s through the turn of the century had to learn to sit perfectly still.

A woman and her dog in Ontario's Oxford County pose for a photo. The image dates to the late 1800s. (Source: Woodstock Museum) “We start off with exposure times of 20 seconds, or even more than that, so holding a pose for a long time was hard,” Pollard explained.

It was a big reason people didn’t smile.

But there were other explanations, ranging from bad teeth to a holdover from the era of painted portraits when sittings could last hours.

Yet, with the advent of the first portable camera in the 1920s, people began to flash their smiles.

In time, taking pictures became routine.

Now, in an era of easily deleted digital photographs, the old tangible technologies of days gone by are making a comeback.

A vintage studio camera dating to the mid to late 1800s is seen at the Woodstock Museum in Woodstock, Ont. on June 8, 2023. (Sean Irvine/CTV News London)“When we see photos from this period, they had a lot of meaning because you didn’t have 50,000 of them on your phone. And so they are very, very, precious things,” explained Woodstock Museum Curator and Manager, Karen Houston.

The Woodstock Museum is pleased with a significant interest in a course tied to the exhibit. It will teach preservation and explain historical photographic methods.

It runs this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in conjunction with the opening of Don’t Smile.

The exhibit continues until September and admission is free. Top Stories

Tragedy in real time: The Armenian exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh

For the past five days, vehicles laden with refugees have poured into Armenia, fleeing from the crumbling enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in neighbouring Azerbaijan. In a special report for, journalist Neil Hauer recounts what it's like on the ground in Armenia.

Stay Connected