The Origin of “Say Cheese” and When People Started Smiling in Photographs

Sue T. asks: Why do people say “say cheese” when taking pictures?  Also, why did people not smile in old pictures and when did they start?

smiling-little-girls“Say cheese!” This simple command is meant to elicit a smile from potential photography subjects no matter what their age. It has become so commonplace that the word “say” is often no longer uttered. A simple “cheese” spreads a smile across anyone’s face, and with a click of a button, that smile is captured for eternity.

No one can say for sure who coined the phrase “say cheese” for use in getting people to smile, nor can we say with 100% certainty why that particular phrase was chosen as the smile spreader. The leading theory, however, as to the “why” of “say cheese” is that the “ch” sound causes one to position the teeth just so, and the long “ee” sound parts their lips, forming something close to a smile.

The phrase appears to have been first used in this way around the 1940s, with one of the earliest references appearing in The Big Spring Herald in 1943:

Now here’s something worth knowing. It’s a formula for smiling when you have your picture taken. It comes from former Ambassador Joseph E. Davies and is guaranteed to make you look pleasant no matter what you’re thinking. Mr. Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of his “Mission to Moscow.” It’s simple. Just say “Cheese,” It’s an automatic smile. “I learned that from a politician,” Mr. Davies chuckled. “An astute politician, a very great politician. But, of course, I cannot tell you who he was…”

It is thought the “politician” he was referring to was none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who Ambassador Davies served under.  So did President Roosevelt himself come up with the phrase or simply learn it from someone else?  Nobody knows, but soon after, saying cheese became a common phrase for people to utter when trying to get people to smile in photographs.

You wouldn’t have had to worry so much about this cheesiness in the Victorian era (1837-1901). During this period, etiquette and beauty standards were much different than they are today. In Victorian times, a small, tightly controlled mouth was considered beautiful. In fact, photographers during this era elicited the desired portrait expression by having their subjects “say prunes”. Smiles during this time were only typically captured on children, peasants, and drunks.

One of the most common culprits blamed for the neutral expressions on subjects during the Victorian era is the long exposure time for photographs to be taken. To understand where this reasoning comes from and why it is likely incorrect, you need a very brief history of photography.

The creation of permanent images began with Thomas Wedgewood in 1790, but the earliest known camera image belongs to French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1826. The photograph is entitled, “View From the Window at Le Gras”. It is historically said to have required 8 hours of exposure time, but in reality it could have taken as long as a few days.

An exposure time of this length was obviously not conducive to capturing images of people and so the quest to do so continued. In 1839, Louis Daguerre introduced a new form of photography, Daguerrotype, where a positive of the image was developed directly on the photographic plate. This did not allow for reproduction of shots taken, but it did cut down exposure time significantly. Daguerrotypes remained extremely popular until the 1860s. From 1839 – 1845, exposure time for Daguerrotypes was about 60 – 90 seconds, which was a long time to remain motionless and hold a smile, but not impossible.

By 1845, exposure time on daguerrotypes was cut to only a few seconds. The majority of pictures we see are daguerrotypes taken after 1845, thus eliminating the blame for the lack of pearly whites shown by our ancestors of the Victorian era on long exposure time.

Speaking of pearly whites- the next most common reason cited for people not smiling in photographs in the Victorian era is blamed on dental hygiene. The most common cure for sick teeth during this time was to pull them out. There were no caps or other fixes to make chipped or broken teeth more aesthetically pleasing. So perhaps the reason tightly controlled mouths were considered more beautiful than beaming smiles in the Victorian era was in part due to dental hygiene.

Keep in mind too that daguerrotypes were expensive. The rich were more likely to be photographed than the poor, and even then, most families were only photographed on special occasions, perhaps only even once in a lifetime. The majority of these photographs were taken in a professional photography studio. There was nothing casual about photos taken then and the etiquette for formal occasions at that time was to act “prim and proper”. What was socially acceptable in photography during the Victorian era mirrored the beauty and etiquette standards of the times.  You wouldn’t want to pay all that money and have the one time you’re photographed in your lifetime showing you smiling like a drunkard!

Fast forward to 1888. This is the year George Eastman founded Kodak, a company most widely known for its production of photographic films. Kodak changed the face of photography in more ways than one. Kodak brought photography to the masses and to all occasions ranging from super casual to superbly formal. The company introduced its first pocket camera at a cost of $5 ($135 today), the Pocket Kodak, in 1895. It was the introduction of Kodak’s $1 Brownie camera in 1900, however, that changed the world of photography forever.

The Brownie camera was intended to be so inexpensive and so simple to use that anyone could take a picture. In fact, the Kodak slogan at this time was, “You push the button, we do the rest.” Photography as a hobby was now a possibility. Capturing “everyday” moments was now a reality- more and more smiles were now captured on film.

With the invention of film also came the movie industry. Although the majority of films made before 1930s were silent, everyday moments and facial expressions were reproduced on the big screen for all to see. Movie stars of that era were captured in photographs with *gasp* smiles. As we know, the media and Hollywood have a huge influence on social etiquette and beauty standards. As more and more celebrities were captured on film smiling, the smile became more socially accepted as beautiful and as an acceptable thing to do in photographs.

So when did it become tradition for people to smile in photographs? This happened in the beginning of the 1900s, due to more and more casual moments being caught on film both in Hollywood and amongst family and friends.

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Bonus Facts:

  • George Washington is one of those who had incredibly bad teeth and by his inauguration in 1789, he had only one natural tooth remaining- this would have been hardly a dignified look in his Presidential portrait, had he chosen to smile. 😉  Despite what you may have heard, though, he did not have wooden dentures.
  • Today, one of the more well-known and inexplicably popular photographic “smiles” for teenagers and some young adults is the “duckface”. This is usually performed by females during self-photographs with said photography subjects pressing their lips together in a half pout, half kiss formation, causing them to look very similar to a duck’s bill. This may be yet again owing to the influence of Hollywood, with the obsession with botoxed, full-looking lips. Who knew Daisy Duck would become the new face of “beauty”?
[Smiling Girls Image via Shutterstock] Expand for References
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  • When I was in the Army it was, “Say ‘pussee!'”

    • yeah, I don’t know how well that would go over in a photog studio 🙂

    • That is what the photographer whispered in each male graduate’s ear before taking the senior class pictures. Worked!

  • I always thought photographers said “say cheese” because it would be insane to eat cheese just before a picture is taken. This will make your teeth yellow and I think the photographer just wanted to make people laugh or smile. 🙂

  • the reason victorians did not smile i,ve heard, is because many had awful teeth or no teeth at all.

    • Exactly! Very few people had either straight, or white, or all of their teeth back then.

  • Best liscence photo I ever got was from being asked to say payday! Everyone likes payday.

  • Different languages have various words for the same purpose. In Finnish the magic word is muikku (a kind of herring) because “it leaves your lips in a pretty form”☺️
    How about other languages?

    • In South Korea (I don’t know about North Korea), photographers tell their subjects to “Say ‘kimchi’!”

  • Most (professional) photographers in India just say “Smile Please”.Although college students / teens use the term ‘Cheese’ for their snapshots.

    Joke: A few dialects in India use the sound ‘ees’ for ‘S’ (school=eskool, scooter=escooter). So smile becomes esmail, which is also rhymes with a man’s name. So a jest situation – photographer says ‘esmail’, the subjects shout back, “he is not here”.

  • Today, I guess it is “Say Duck Face”.

  • It seems like there is more to the story when it comes to facial expressions in old photographs. Many didn’t merely not smile. So many had very severe expressions, stern, and sometimes almost angry looking. This seemed especially true of older women.

  • I have found that the phrase, “say sex” is MOST effective in eliciting a genuine smile from all demographics.