OK, let's use The Match Game format to describe this old Victorian advertising card for "N.W. Appleton, stationer."1
Gene Rayburn: "The man in this vintage illustration looks BLANK."
So how would you describe this smiling gentleman sitting upon a fence with a plate of food, surrounded by some begging dogs hoping for scraps.
Would you go with this...
My hunch is that an overwhelming majority of us would agree with Betty White (and not just because she's a much safer bet than Charles Nelson Reilly). While this Victorian illustration might have seemed funny and comic in its time, within the cultural context of 2015, it's just plain creepy. A very early example of the uncanny valley effect.
These days, it seems, there's even more general creepiness around smiles. We can blame pop culture, I reckon, from Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs to The Joker2 and everything in between.
Here are some links, best read in daylight perhaps, on how smiles have become horror icons.
- Creepypasta Wiki: The Smiling Man
- The Punk Effect: An Unsettling Smile: Facial Expressions and Uncanny Characters
- Papergreat: This year's oddest vintage valentine
- Smithsonian: The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary
1. N.W. Appleton was likely located in Boston, Massachusetts.
2. Slightly related post — Scholastic Fest: #6, The Phantom Brakeman and Other Railroad Stories