The Origin of the Smile in America

Americans are famous around the world for the emphasis we put on our smiles. But it wasn’t always that way. The expressions captured in American Gothic were considered the epitome of the American character for centuries, but, suddenly it all changed. About 1900, people began to be concerned about smiles. From 1889 to 1899, Americans suddenly started talking about smiles, and for a period of about five years the word smile enjoyed a popularity it has never regained.

That’s because this was the period when America found its smile. Why did Americans start smiling at this time? That’s complicated, but there are several factors we can point to.

Explanation #1: Dentistry

dreamstime_s_13693737The mid-19th century saw the development of the sugar industry, which for the first time made sweets available to the public. Sugar consumption increased dramatically, and with it came tooth decay and tooth loss. People didn’t want to share a mouth full of damaged teeth, or, worse, a mouth with few teeth left at all.

But as this new epidemic spread, a new class of medical experts rose to face it. The first dental school was founded in 1840, and the American Dental Association in 1859. With dentists around to help preserve teeth and practice reconstructive dentistry on those that had been damaged, more people had healthier smiles that they were happier to share.

Explanation #2: Advertising

Advertising has always been around, but by the end of the 19th century it began to change. Industrialization meant that a company could produce far more goods than its local consumers could buy and use. Manufacturers and processors had to try to reach out to distant people and convince them to buy their goods, rather than the goods of a competitor. This required more than just a simple statement that your products existed, it needed a mark of quality, so the brand was born.

But a successful brand depends on more than just an assertion of quality. It depends on getting your customers to associate your brand with positive emotions, and what better way to do that than with a smile? Advertisers began encouraging consumers to smile, and consumers responded.

Explanation #3: Photography

But it wasn’t just the same old goods that were being sold in the new style of advertisements, there was a revolutionary product that needed to be marketed as well. In 1888 George Eastman’s camera went on sale, completely transforming the way Americans took pictures, and the way they looked at themselves.

Photography was popular in the US before Eastman’s invention. Daguerreotypes had been widely embraced in the US in the 19th century, with millions of images being produced. Daguerreotypes had two major drawbacks, though: they took up to 90 seconds to expose (which is a bit long to hold a smile), and they’re expensive. Combine these two factors and most Americans were likely to get one made just once every few years, and perhaps just once in a lifetime. With so few pictures taken, every sitting was seen as a solemn occasion. As Mark Twain commented,  “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.”

But the Eastman camera changed that. Not only could a picture be taken almost instantly, but people could actually own a camera and take their own pictures. They wanted to capture their lives on film, their happy lives, that is, and, as a result they took pictures of themselves smiling. Kodak picked up on this, and it is reflected in their advertising. Kodak ads in 1889 didn’t use smiles, but after 1900 they used  more and  more smiling people.

Teddy Roosevelt Gives His Smile of Approval

And if there were any doubt that this is the time that Americans learned to smile, you need only look at the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909). TR was famous for many things, such as the Spanish American War, the Panama Canal, and the creation of the National Parks System, but he’s also “the first president that smiled.” And photographs of his smiling face were spread around the country. Once the highest office in the land was held by a man who smiled broadly and often, there was no doubt that smiling had arrived in America.

Are You Comfortable Smiling for the Camera?

These days, Americans are smiling more than ever, partly because we have more cameras than ever. No matter where you go, you have to assume that somebody has a camera handy, and, with the exception of pouting selfies, you will be expected to show your pearly whites.

If you’re unhappy with the appearance of your teeth, this amounts to constant torture.

But it doesn’t have to be. Cosmetic dentistry can help you achieve an attractive smile that you will be happy to share anytime someone pulls out their phone.  To learn how you can achieve that attractive, confident smile, please call 310-275-5325 for an appointment with a Beverly Hills cosmetic dentist at Ravon Knopf.

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