The Kiss of the 1800s and Tales Associated with It

A kiss is the touching or pressing of one’s lips against another person’s lips and the romantic kiss of the 1800s was much like a romantic kiss of today. It was one that expressed sentiments of love, attraction, affection, romance, or passion. Author Kristoffer Nyrop in his 1901 book, The Kiss and Its History, had a lot to say about kisses and described romantic ones in the following manner:

kiss of the 1800s - la baiser

Detail from “La Baiser,” (“The Kiss”), by Auguste Toulmouche, circa 1870. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

“The kiss of love is the exultant message of the longing of love, love eternally young, the burning prayer of hot desire, which is born on the lovers’ lips and ‘rises,’ as Charles Fuster has said, ‘up to the blue sky from the green plains,’ like a tender, trembling thank-offering. … The love kiss, rich in promise, bestows an intoxicating feeling of infinite happiness, courage, and youth, and therefore surpasses all other earthly joys in sublimity — at any rate all poets say so … Thus even the highest work of art, year, the loftiest reputation, is nothing in comparison with the passionate kiss of a woman one loves. … And we all yearn for kisses and we all seek them; it is idle to struggle against this passion. No one can evade the omnipotence of the kiss.”[1]  

The nineteenth-century American humorist Josh Billings noted that “the more a man tries to analyze a kiss, the more he can’t; the best way to define a kiss is to take one.”[2] Despite Billings’ thoughts that a kiss cannot be described, many people have tried to do so. For instance, one description was that it was a “gentle-touch” lip to lip. Nineteenth-century newspaper editor, writer, and poet George D. Prentice claimed that a female correspondent once wrote “when two hearts are surcharged with love’s electricity, a kiss is the burning contract, the wild leaping flames of love’s enthusiasm.”[3]

Poets have also long penned the wonders of a well-remembered kiss. For instance, the famous English poet of the Victorian Era, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, gave one brief line to describe a kiss: “As long and silent as the ecstatic night.”[4] Lord Byron one of the great British poets spoke of a kiss in Don Juan and relied on a single word. He called it a “heart-quake.” There was also the Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns’ dreamy version of a kiss:

  • “Honeyed seal of soft affections,
  • Tenderest pledge of future bliss
  • Dearest tie of young connections.
  • Love’s first snowdrop, virgin bliss.”[5]

The ultimate romantic kiss by Romeo in Juliette by Frank Dicksee in 1884. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A kiss was also sometimes defined in the nineteenth century as an “osculatory practice” and books such as Kissing: the art of Osculation, Curiously, Historically, Humorously, and Poetically Considered, became big hits with nineteenth century readers. That is because osculatory is a geometric term that describes the point where two curves or surfaces come in contact or where a common tangent exists. Thus, it appeared as if the two curved lines were kissing, and hence the osculatory reference.

Most people know that there are many types of kisses, and, supposedly the Romans had many different words to distinguish all the various kisses. One nineteenth-century writer, G. J. Manson, described some of these kisses in the following manner:

“Kisses are forced, unwilling, cold, comfortless, frigid and frozen, chaste, timid, rosy, balmy, humid, dewy, trembling, soft, gentle, tender, tempting, fragrant, sacred, hallowed divine, soothing, joyful, affectionate, delicious, rapturous, deep-drawn and inebriating, ardent, flaming and akin to fire, ravishing, lingering and long. One also hears of parting, tear-dewed, savory, loathsome, poisonous, treacherous, false, rude, stolen and great fat noisy kisses.”[6]

Humorous definitions of kisses were also printed in the satirical magazine Harper’s Weekly in 1874:

“Bus — to kiss. Re-bus — to kiss again. Blunder-bus — two girls kissing each other. Omni-bus — to kiss all the girls in the room. Bus-ter — a general kisser. E pluri-bus unum — a thousand kisses in one.”[7]

Caricature of kissing once the poke bonnets came into fashion. Image from the 1810s in “Le Suprême Bon Ton” titled “Les Invisibles en Tête-à-Tête.” Public domain.

Amid all the descriptions of the kiss and kissing, Manson offered some practical advice to gentlemen about how to achieve a proper romantic kiss:

“[T]he gentleman must be taller than the lady he intends to kiss. Take her right hand in yours and draw her gently to you; pass your left hand over her right shoulder, diagonally down across her back, under her left arm; press her to your bosom, at the same time she will throw her head back and you have nothing to do but lean a little forward and press your lips to hers, and then the thing is done.”[8]

Of course, there was also advice for women about how they should correctly respond and properly receive the kiss. Reverend Sidney Smith provided the advice:

“We are in favor of a certain amount of shyness when a kiss is proposed, but it should not be too long, and when the fair one gives it, let it be administered with a warmth and energy; let there be soul in it. If she closes her eyes and sighs immediately after it the effect is greater. She should be careful not to slobber a kiss but give it as a humming-bird runs his bill into a honeysuckle, deep but delicate. There is much virtue in a kiss when well delivered.”[9]

Kissers of the 1800s also needed to be aware that were several no-nos for gentlemen when it came to proper kissing:

“Don’t make a noise over it as if you were firing off shooting crackers, or pounce upon it like a hungry hawk upon an innocent dove, but gently fold the damsel in your arms without smashing her standing collar or spoiling her curls, and by a sweet pressure upon her mouth, revel in the blissfulness of your situation without smacking your lips on it as you would over a glass of beer.”[10]

Other kissing advice for gentlemen was that they should not abuse the freedom of kissing and when in a public place kiss a female delicately on the hand, the forehead, or the cheek, rather than giving her a full smack on the lips. According to several nineteenth-century etiquette books, it was “vulgar” for women to give one another a greeting kiss in a public place, but if a cherished friend or a dear relative chose to give such a greeting, it was to be done “unobtrusively” and “with dignity.” It was also noted that it was improper to kiss anyone in public (man or women) unless affection was also connected with the “irresistible impulse.”

kiss of the 1800s - the romantic kiss

The romantic kiss. Author’s collection.

The French were famous for kissing and French women supposedly had a special kissing code that was often repeated because it involved the catchy phrase, “Give your hand to a gentleman to kiss, your cheek to a friend, but keep your lips for your lover.”[11] However, French women were not the only women in the 1800s who safeguarded their kisses. There were plenty of American and British women who did not wantonly dispense what one person defined as “a labial contraction followed by a smack!”[12]

Although most women in the nineteenth century safeguarded their kisses that did not always stop unruly gentlemen from attempting to steal them, and some men tried even though it was a crime to pilfer an unwanted kiss from a fair lady. This was noted by the nineteenth magazine All the Year Round:

“Kisses in our own day have their penalties if they should be too rudely poached. In the eyes of the law, kissing a lady without her will and permission is a common assault punishable by fine and imprisonment; and it is no uncommon thing to see in the daily police reports cases where a too susceptible gentleman has had to pay dearly for ‘crushing the ripe cherries’ of a lady’s lips.”[13]

Despite it being a criminal offense, some gentlemen decided the pleasure of a stolen kiss was worth the risk. One such person was an amorous rogue who flaunted the law and decided a poached kiss was in order. He was a middle-aged man named Rook, and he took indecent liberties with 18-year-old Ellen Bassett. According to the report, they worked together, she as a maid and he as a keeper for a James Holmes, Esq. of 41, Alpha Road, Regent’s Park. The Globe provided the details of the alleged theft:

“The defendant, who was of an amorous disposition, had for some time past watched every opportunity of stealing a kiss, and about a fortnight ago she heard the bell ring, during the absence of her mistress, and she proceeded through the garden for the purpose of seeing who was at the gate, when the defendant followed her out, and seizing her gently round the waist, imprinted a passionate kiss on her lips. She resisted his caresses, but he would take no denial, and hurried her into an outhouse, where he made repeated attempts to accomplish his wishes, but without effect, as she struggled most desperately, and at length succeeded in getting away from him.”[14]  

Rook then repeated his kissing theft a day or two later, which caused Ellen to appeal to her father, who then advised her to visit police. Rook was taken into custody and admitted he had stolen a kiss on several occasions and that it was unwanted by Ellen. However, he denied doing anything beyond taking a kiss and claimed that she was far too coy to let him proceed any further. Rook was told that if he could not solve things with Ellen immediately the case would proceed to trial, and, fortunately, for him, they settled things amicably.

A second stolen kiss that resulted in decisive action by a magistrate against the perpetrator was reported on 2 April 1838:

“On Thursday Mrs. Latin, of Charles-street, Sculcoates, appeared before the magistrates to prefer a charge against Barnard Dale ‘of stealing a kiss.’ The complainant said, in great anger, that the prisoner had intruded himself into her house, where he caught hold of her around the waist and stole a kiss from her. The magistrate sentenced the prisoner to pay a fine of 40s. and costs, or to be imprisoned for six weeks.”[15]

Jean Honoré Fragonard’s painting of 1760 titled “The Stolen Kiss.” Courtesy of The Met Museum.

Another kissing theft was reported as “A Serious Affair.” It also happened in April of 1838 and involved a pipe maker named John Cunningham. He was alleged to have slyly stolen a kiss from the lips of his neighbor Alice Turner, who was the wife a young barber. She had been walking home when Cunningham overtook her and asked if she wanted a ride in his cart. Because she was tired, she accepted the ride. She reported:

“We proceeded on till we came to a secluded part of St. John’s Wood Road, when availing himself of the opportunity, he gave me such a kiss as I shall never forget.”[16]  

Despite her insistence that it was an unforgettable kiss, Cunningham claimed that he couldn’t remember it. Apparently, he had been drinking. When Alice was questioned as to why she didn’t immediately push him away, she replied that it was impossible:

“[H]e was as quick as lightning. It was a word and a kiss, and the kiss came first; but I told my husband all about it when I got home.”[17]  

Cunningham maintained that Turner should have never told her husband about the kiss because that was what created all the “rumpus.” Cunningham further stated, “You should not kiss and tell.” Having been convicted by his own words, Cunningham was ordered to pay the costs of the warrant and released on his own recognizance.

The kiss of the 1800s and all these kissing stories got me thinking of my mom who died several years ago. She was always full of interesting sayings and would repeat them endlessly. One of my favorite sayings that I learned from her is about kissing and although it’s an old American proverb and perhaps not accurately rendered here, it is humorous and something to keep in mind even today:

“Don’t kiss over the garden gate because although love is blind the neighbors ain’t.”

kiss of the 1800s

A Kiss. Author’s collection.


  • [1] K. Nyrop and W. F. Harvey, The Kiss and Its History (London: Sands & Company, 1901), p. 30–31.
  • [2] C. Dickens, All the Year Round v. 60 (London: Published at the Office, 1887), p. 203.
  • [3] G. J. Manson, Kissing: the art of osculation, curiously, historically, humorously, and poetically considered (Brooklyn: Union Book Co., 1888), p. 14.
  • [4] C. C. Bombaugh, The Literature of Kissing: Gleaned from History, Poetry, Fiction, and Anecdote (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1876), p. 318.
  • [5] G. J. Manson, p. 13.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 61.
  • [7] Harper’s Weekly v. 18 (New York: Harper’s Magazine Company, 1874), p. 835.
  • [8] G. J. Manson, p. 16.
  • [9] Ibid, p. 23.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 16–17.
  • [11] Handbooks for Home Improvement, comprising How to Write. How to Behave. How to Talk. How to do Business v. 3 (New York: Davies and Roberts, 1856), p. 92.
  • [12] The Family Magazine; Or Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge v. 2 (New York: Redfield & Lindsay, 1835), p. 31.
  • [13] C. Dickens, p. 205.
  • [14] Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, “Marylebone,” December 8, 1834, p. 4.
  • [15] Globe, “Stealing a Kiss,” April 2, 1838, p. 4.
  • [16] Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, “A Serious Affair,” April 21, 1838, p. 1.
  • [17] Ibid.

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  1. Jj collins on March 4, 2022 at 11:19 pm

    I find myself drawn to the Victorian times were is seems to me that mutual respect honour and politeness were common place. As I am drawn into this technical age I can only see selfishness and deception .
    Jj collins

  2. Cherie Dargan on March 27, 2023 at 10:51 am

    I’m writing a dual narrative novel, with the second story set in the 1860s. Your article is wonderful and I enjoyed the literary examples and illustrations.

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