I have many pictures of my immigrant grandparents in their early years in this country, and there were few smiles to be found.
Here is one of my grandfather and his family when they first arrived. My memories are not what you see. Rather, I remember the happy, proud and smiling group of my childhood.
When I show these pictures at presentations, a question I hear frequently is, “How come they never smiled? Weren’t they happy?” My response is that indeed they were. They just didn’t smile for pictures. Why?
There are several theories:
Dental. Bad teeth could have been a cause for the close-lipped images. I doubt it.
Tired of sitting. In the early days of photography, it took a while to capture a photograph. Perhaps those sitting couldn’t hold a smile for long enough. I doubt this also.
Formality. To project success to those back in the old country; suggesting that a portrait meant prosperity. I doubt it.
Superstition. That tomorrow ill luck would ensue if they looked happy today. For example, a common response when one asks an Italian how he is; Non c’e’ male. Or Cosi cosi.… not so bad, so-so. For them to say “Very good” might bring bad luck. A smile might do the same. I am not sure.
Inappropriate for the culture. I heard this from a senior Italian at one of my presentations. He said that Italians did not smile because they thought it was inappropriate, that it suggested poor behavior, that they did not want to make a ‘scene’, a brutta figura.
Italians are very conscious of their behavior in public. This explanation makes the most sense to me.
DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER IDEAS?
*** The featured image is my mother (L) and her sister, Vera