We’ve all had a camera pointed in our face with someone telling us to “say cheese” at one point or another. Chances are you’ve been on the other side directing someone with the classic shutterbug slogan, too. But back in the Victorian era, folks were told to blurt out a completely different type of food while posing for photos.
Britain’s first portrait photographer, Richard Beard, reportedly asked his subjects to “say prunes” in order to get the best image while working in the 1840s. The dour look on their faces may certainly reflect a lot of our feelings about the dried fruit, but he wasn’t asking them to say it just to put them in a bad mood. Instead, Beard was trying to ensure their mouths looked as small and refined as possible. Apparently, it was bad form to look too jolly or happy in the Victorian era. “Etiquette codes of the past demanded that the mouth be carefully controlled,” explained Historian Christina Kotchemidova. The word "prunes" does seem like it'd get that desired effect.
It’s also worth noting that dental care was notoriously not great back then, so people weren't eager to show off their not-so-pearly whites. That, plus the long amount of time it took for a portrait to be taken in the early days of photography, all added up to the surly depiction we have of people living at that point in history. Flashing a big smile became more common when advertisements started to feature models with beaming smiles and personal Kodak cameras became popular in the 1920s. Funnily enough, though, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who are notoriously un-smiley in photos are rumored to use the same "prune" trick to make their lips look pouty for the camera today.
Now, if you’re wondering why or when cheese got involved, no one really seems to know for sure. However, there is record of it mentioned in print as far back as 1943, according to the Phrase Finder. A former US Ambassador named Joseph E. Davies said, “It’s simple. Just say ‘cheese,’ it’s an automatic smile. I learned that from a politician.” Davies was tight-lipped about which politician he was talking about, but considering he worked under Franklin D. Roosevelt, we have a feeling he might be the guy. Still, we don’t know if FDR thought of the trick himself or was told about it by someone else.
Whatever the case may be, there’s no doubt that it works — we dare you to try saying cheese right now and not have a smile on your face at the same time. It’s pretty much impossible!