Historically Speaking, A Kiss Is Not Just a Kiss

The Allentown Morning Call

You’ve seen it dozens of times. The camera gets close, the music soars, a hush falls over the audience, then, in a swirl of sound, the film hero kisses his sweetie.

Even in this era of more graphic movie lovemaking, the kiss still holds a special place, perhaps because it’s a sign of affection we all recognize. From the mother’s peck for an infant to children’s innocent busses for grandparents, kissing is with us always.

And what could be more natural on Valentine’s Day than for lovers to use this age-old way of expressing their affection?


But how natural is the kiss?

Foreign to Some Cultures

It may come as a surprise, but not all cultures think of kissing as romantic. In the 1400s, when Europeans first embarked on their path of conquest and exploration, kissing was unknown in many parts of the world.

When confronted by puckering conquistadors, some natives showed no emotion at all, while others fled in terror, said Prof. Vaughn Bryant, chairman of the Texas A&M; anthropology department and an expert in the kiss’s history.

The Chinese found the whole idea of public kissing gross. And when members of an African tribe spotted two Europeans in a passionate kiss, they wondered what could be wrong with those people.

No one can say for sure how kissing started. Some say it dates to an infant’s basic desire for mother’s milk. Others think it might have begun as a way for the human male and female to show they were not going to bite each other. Then, there are those who suggest it began when people wanted to lick each other’s faces for salt.

Nose-Rubbing That Slipped

Bryant believes it’s possible that the romantic kiss grew out of an early lovemaking ritual, rubbing noses. “Somebody must have slipped and found that the lips were a lot more sensitive than the nose,” he said.

Kissing first emerged from the mists of pre-recorded history about 4,000 years ago. Bryant found the reference to romantic nose-rubbing leading to a kiss in the ancient East Indian book, the “Rig-Veda.” The practice spread west into Persia at some point.


The Greeks had the habit of throwing kisses at statues of the gods as a sign of respect. The story goes that Greek orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC) was being taken by guards to meet an enemy king. He asked his captors if they would take him to the nearest temple. The guards thought nothing amiss when Demosthenes raised his hands to his lips for the traditional sacred kiss. They could not see the poison in his hand that made this kiss his last.

It took the ancient Romans to raise kissing to an art. The race of soldiers saw no reason not to make both love and war. Bryant calls them “the kissingest culture that ever existed.” To make the kiss more potent, upper-class Romans took to perfuming their mouths with Oriental spices. The emperor got his hand kissed.

But all the heavy smooching soon was creating a scandal. Old-time Roman moralists were overwhelmed by it. And kissing was not without risk. Early in the 1st Century, the Emperor Tiberius felt that there was only one way to handle a herpes epidemic: He banned social kissing from Gaul to Egypt.

Hems and Boots

Then, in the Middle Ages, kissing distinctions evolved: equals kissed on the lips; hem-of-garment and foot-kissing was for the lowest of the low. Kissing the ground next to a superior’s boot was for the ignominious, and from this arose phrases like kiss the dirt and boot licker .

The Christian church adopted some of the old Roman kissing rite in a religious ceremony. The kiss that the groom gives the bride at a wedding comes from that era.

At the Council of Vienna (1311-1312), the Catholic Church tried to regulate kissing, according it status as a mortal or venal sin depending on the degrees of lovers’ intent.

By the late 1600s, a period noteworthy for plagues sweeping the Continent, mouth kissing had faded from public practice. So, a whole etiquette of greeting grew up. Gentlemen would bow or doff their plumed hats. Ladies would curtsy. It was at this time, some experts say, that the handshake emerged, evolving from the obeisant kiss on the back of a superior’s hand.


The kiss from this time forward was regarded as something private, which should be given that way. As late as 1900, an American etiquette guide declared public kissing “a reprehensible custom and should not be tolerated in good society.” Emily Post, in statements in the 1920s, declared that when a couple meet in a restaurant, he should “on no account kiss her . . . in good society ladies (also) do not kiss each other when they meet either at parties or in public.”

But much changed in America since President Calvin Coolidge’s era. And now, trend-setters note, social kissing has even become a practice in certain business circles.