As far back as I can remember, I’ve had the image of politicians kissing babies in my head.
Typically, the politician is portly and looks a lot like the Monopoly man—that’s what old cartoons will do for you. And, ridiculous as it may seem, it makes sense. Naturally, kissing a baby is a sign of kindness, innocence, purity, and popularity. In 1920, in regards to presidential candidate James Fox, one woman was even reported as having said, “Surely a man who kisses babies the way he does could never break the heart of the world.”
But is it also a little… weird?
This American political custom has a pretty clear history that has long influenced voters come Election Day, but as time goes on, more people are beginning to question its relevance.
A History of Baby Kissing
The first documented case of a major politician kissing babies and using them for political gain is none other than Andrew Jackson himself—well, kind of.
In 1833, it was documented that Jackson was approached by a poor woman and her infant, and that, hoping for her vote, Jackson said, “Is that fine boy your baby? Let me have him. Ah! There is a fine specimen of American childhood. I think, madam, your boy will make a fine man some day.”
What he did next was rather hilarious: Instead of kissing the baby himself, Old Hickory handed the infant over to his Secretary of War, General Eaton, and had him do the deed.
From the Jacksonian era on, baby kissing became an American past time in its own right. Mothers’ magazines were discussing its importance, even going so far as to claim that Davy Crockett had kissed every baby in his political district. (Sanitary!)
But not everybody was caught up in this kissing fad. Politicians like Grover Cleveland were notoriously against it, and although there’s no proof that this affected his career, it certainly altered how some people perceived him.
Feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was also against the practice for reasons of hygiene and children’s welfare. She wrote, “The parent who always expects the baby to be kissed, and the person who feels bound to kiss every baby that comes within reach are equally foolish and obnoxious characters. Children have a right to their kisses as well as older folks. They should not be made the prey of every officiously amiable person in their circle. In short the practice of kissing children at sight is a nuisance, and ought to be abated. But there is a more serious view still to be taken of it, as the germs of disease may often be conveyed in this way.”
Let it all out, Elizabeth!
Perfecting the Technique
Over the 20th century, the practice continued, but with more criticisms arising around the subject. In 1928, a public relations guide urged people to consider baby kissing as part of a larger picture, and never to stage such an emotional event with poor timing. In 1950, LIFE clarified that politicians should never block their face with the baby while performing the act of kissing, lest the cameras miss a perfect shot.
But baby kissing dissenters found support in Richard Nixon, who stated in 1968, “I won’t wear a silly hat, or kiss a lady or a baby… I’d look like a jerk.”
But now the debate has been moved into the 21st century, and after a recent disastrous baby-kissing event starring Donald Trump and a grumpy toddler, the topic is hotter than ever.