You might look at old photos of family members from the 1930s-1970s and think “My goodness, that person was only 23 then, but they look so much older.” It’s a phenomenon that people across the internet have noticed and commented on as well. These tough-looking faces staring in the camera appear to be older than they are and perhaps even more wizened than people their age would be nowadays. Had they been born only 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago we might view them quite differently. Is there a physical explanation for this or is it simply a problem of perception?

1954 teens dressed for cotillion
Teens going to their first cotillion dance in 1954. Via: State Archives of Florida/Joseph Steinmetz

One thing that we know is different today versus generations ago is lifestyle. Fewer people today smoke cigarettes and many people today wear sunscreen or lotion and limit their time in the sun. Back in the old days both smoking and sun exposure were often considered good for you and so people did both as often as they wanted.

In particular people with lots of wealth could afford to spend summers in the Riviera and never had to worry about an empty cigarette case. Getting a tan wasn’t considered cool until the rich and fashionable people of the 1930s came home from their trips abroad with a distinct glow to their skin. There’s no doubt that sunbathing definitely has an effect.

sunbathers in the 1990s
Via: State Archives of Florida

Anyone in a profession that required them to spend time outside could have more wrinkles at much younger ages than we usually see today. Combined with other factors some subjects would have genuinely looked older back then- despite their youthful ages.

It often surprises me how photos of old Hollywood celebrities and of average Joes in the 1950s both had the signs of aging on their faces- it was considered normal back then. Studies support this and have now shown that we’re aging slower than in previous eras.

Cary Grant at NBC Radio in the 1940s. He would have been 35-40 years of age in this photo, but looks older. Via: Wiki Commons

Another reason that people might look older in photos from previous eras is down to their style. We associate certain hairstyles and glasses with older generations and that association can override our rational knowledge of how young someone truly was at that age. This means that, while physical reasons exist for some of the aging in these photos, a large part of this occurrence has to do with how we see ourselves in relation to our older friends, relatives, and even celebrities and what we think of as “old fashioned”.

But, are there a few other factors in play as to why someone might look older in old photos? As Michael Stevens of Vsauce explains, there are actually a lot of aspects that go into why this phenomenon exists.

Watch the video below to find out how and why we see people in old photos as “old”.

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