On a trip to Vienna, a group of journalism students from Portland were surprised to see that no one seemed to be smiling. They asked asked people why they didn’t smile, and were told many things, including:

  • “People who smile all the time are the ones that do drugs.”
  • “People think you are a beggar if you’re smiling.”
  • “If someone is walking down the street smiling, I think they are from another country, or on drugs, or drunk.”

We tend to take smiling as normal, and in fact a healthy expression, so these opinions may strike you as foreign, but not too long ago Americans felt the same way.

Dour Daguerreotypes

In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans went daffy for daguerreotypes. Millions of them were taken across the country, documenting practically every aspect of American life, from the farm to the Civil War battlefields, but one thing that was very rarely seen was a smile.

A common explanation for why people don’t smile was that pictures took too long to expose and they had to stay still for a long time, which is harder with a smile. But by the time daguerreotypes became popular, the process only took an exposure time of 2 minutes, which isn’t long to hold a smile at all.

Instead, people didn’t smile partly because they likely didn’t have good teeth to show off. Dentistry was only just becoming a real profession at this time (the first dental schools were founded about this time, and before this dentists were doctors, barbers, or anyone with a good pair of pliers or a turnkey), and it would be many years before cosmetic dentistry took off.

But, culturally, people were also against smiling. Like the Viennese, Americans though people who smiled all the time were either drunk or insane.

Advertising Made Us Smile

How, then, did we learn to smile as Americans? Advertisers taught us. Over the course of several decades, advertisers began to show us pictures of people smiling, starting in the 1880’s when new printing techniques allowed them to affordably put pictorial advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Advertisers were trying to sell us not just products, but a lifestyle and an ideal, that foundational American ideal: “the pursuit of happiness.”

The first products to show people smiling in ads were toothpastes, where a smile allowed them to show the efficacy of their product. Kodak cameras started advertising with smiles by 1905, and by 1909, Coca-Cola was even using smiles in its ads.

Because of the lingering taint of madness and inebriation, advertisers approached smiling carefully, using first children and minorities. Next, women were shown smiling. Once this gained acceptance, they put smiling men in ads as well.

What Is Keeping You from Smiling?

These days, we have largely embraced the smiling ideal. It’s not just for madmen and drunkards anymore. Unfortunately, though, there are many people who still don’t feel comfortable smiling, often because they’re uncomfortable with the appearance of their teeth.

Fortunately, there are now many solutions for improving your smile. If you would like to get a smile you’d be proud to share, please call 509-581-4188 for an appointment at our office in Spokane or 509-927-2273 for one at our office in Spokane Valley.