Why Did They Not Smile?

I have many pictures of my immigrant grandparents in their early years in this country, and there were few smiles to be found.vincenzo-angela-louis-mary-troiano-and-unknown-man-1904-05

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.


*** The featured image is my mother (L) and her sister, Vera

© 2017

By | 2017-07-10T16:10:05+00:00 March 20th, 2017|Italian Culture|15 Comments


  1. Ann Storti March 20, 2017 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    While in Italy last year my friends and I visited my family, my aunt, uncle, and cousins that I never communicated with or met before. It was a very emotional reunion and one that I will always treasure. Naturally there were lots pictures taken to preserve the moment. One of my friends asked my aunt to smile for the picture and she replied “I don’t smile anymore because I lost my husband 20 years ago.” Needless to say we were all amazed by her response and questioned our own interpretation. I guess she was still mourning the loss of her husband. It was at that moment we realized we were truly in Italy.

    • Ed March 20, 2017 at 12:54 pm - Reply

      Yes, and so very strange, even today.

  2. Diana Donovan March 20, 2017 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    My photos are the same and I wondered why no one ever smiled. So here goes my theory. This picture taking was serious business and you were expected to model that, so I go with the culture of no “brutta figura” Just a thought. Also, wasn’t sculpture and paintings of folks with serious expressions?

    • Ed March 20, 2017 at 12:56 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Diana. We agree, though take a look at Ann’s comment. She had cousin who did not smile in the picture because of the loss of her husband 20 years ago. Fascinating.

      • Ed March 20, 2017 at 8:01 pm - Reply

        Agree. Quite fascinating. Chissa?

  3. Barbara Beau March 20, 2017 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    My daughter was looking through old photos yesterday and she asked why no one smiled….thanks for the logical explanations which I have forwarded to her….

    • Ed March 20, 2017 at 8:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Barbara. Glad to help by jogging memories.

  4. Phyllis Storti Wilkie March 20, 2017 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    I once read it was because they felt it made them look stupid. I think all the answers might be correct.

    • Ed March 20, 2017 at 8:00 pm - Reply

      You may be right, Phyllis. At any given time, one or all might apply I guess.

  5. John C. Yuill March 20, 2017 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    Ed, You’ve covered one of those age old questions of mine. Very interesting indeed.Thanks as always. JC

    • Ed March 20, 2017 at 7:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks, John. So nice to hear from you. Are you writing?

  6. Natalie McKenna March 21, 2017 at 3:29 am - Reply

    Maybe it was the photographer and all the rig-a-ma-row (spelling?) he went through and maybe he brought on this seriousness. Or maybe they were told to be still which again brings on a seriousness, so as to not spoil the picture. In any event, consider yourself fortunate that you have these formal photos, as many could not afford to do so.

    • Ed March 21, 2017 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Natalie. Yes, I believe all of it was in play. I have a picture of my Dad and his Family when all the kids were young. It was taken on a hot summer Sunday when they were dressed to the ‘nines’ and boy, they were not happy.
      Yes, I am fortunate as I have many photos culled from shoe boxes, drawers, relatives. They tell a story.

  7. Lucia Tartaglia April 3, 2017 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Hi Ed who is the young man next to Zio?

    • Ed April 3, 2017 at 3:05 pm - Reply

      We could never figure that out, Lucia. Cousins Yolanda and Angela (Aunt Mary’s daughters), both now in their 90’s, think he was a friend.

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