Initially, people took photos using an early photographic process called daguerreotype. It’s long exposure time (reaching up to 15 minutes or so) made it impossible for someone to even hold a smile.
Although they’re a bit cheaper than paintings, photos were still a rarity during those days. Portrait photography was considered a formal occasion, an opportunity to capture the person’s “ideal,” and something that could only happen once in a lifetime. It was an event so serious that they didn’t want a smile to ruin it all.
This explanation was perfectly summed up by Mark Twain (1835-1910) in his letter to the Sacramento Daily Union:
“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.”
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Jeeves, N. The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture. The Public Domain Review. Retrieved 21 May 2016, from http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/09/18/the-serious-and-the-smirk-the-smile-in-portraiture/#sthash.MlcOWQyw.dpuf
Meyer, R. (2013). Why Didn’t People Smile in Old Portraits?. The Atlantic. Retrieved 21 May 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/why-didnt-people-smile-in-old-portraits/279880/
Smithsonian Magazine,. Ask Smithsonian: Why Don’t People Smile in Old Photographs?. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/ask-smithsonian/ask-smithsonian-how-does-anesthesia-work/