One often looks at portraits from the early 19th century, or really any previous century, and gains the impression that the sitters must have been morose or not happy as we would define happiness. They’re rarely smiling after all. But the answer to that question isn’t a matter of happiness, it’s about dental care. It’s about bad teeth.
Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, never smiled showing her teeth, although she was said to be vivacious and charming. She didn’t show her front teeth because they were brown with decay owing to her fondness for chewing and sucking on raw sugar cane–a habit acquired during her childhood in the Caribbean.
But even without a fondness for sugar cane, people’s teeth were generally bad. Hence smiling was done without showing the teeth. Unless unusually, they had good teeth–a sign to them of excellent health. And because people didn’t smile openly–for that very good reason–it just wasn’t done.
For the Elizabethans, who were uncommonly aware of these things, keeping a bit of parsley tucked about your person was a good thing–should you see someone you fancied, you could have a quick chew on a bit of parsley and that would cause you to have sweet breath–so Thomas Hill tells us in The Gardener’s Labyrinthe first published in 1577. Apples were also recommended for sweet breath–which the Elizabethans valued highly.
Toothbrushes did exist, certainly well before the 19th century, but that which passed as ‘toothpowder’ would traumatise a modern day dentist. And possibly as much as 50% of the population had never seen a toothbrush, let alone used one.
So the next time you see one of those early photographs–particularly of a Victorian bride and groom–and they both look as though they’ve been to a funeral…remember, it’s not that they’re not happy, it’s probably so no one would see their teeth.