“This brings me to another thing: the danger of kissing on the mouth”

This semester I am at the College of William and Mary completing a practicum in archives and special collections primarily focused on digitization, the whole point of which is to make items such as manuscripts accessible to users online. As is the nature of special collections the material is one of a kind and that means along the way I occasionally find treasures that catch my eye through the blur of metadata creation. I’ve already shared with you the pleasures of huffing nitrous oxide at Yale College in 1821 and today I have a new one, the dangers of letting people kiss your baby.

My current project is the digitization of a collection of romantic correspondence between a young couple in a small Virginia town in the early 20th century. First they are friends, then they are dating and engaged, and once they are married the correspondence stops and the remainder of the collection is Christmas cards. It was here that I found a three page form letter from the Women’s Home Companion Better Babies Bureau dated September 1939.

Initially I interpreted the moniker “Better Babies Bureau” as a play on the WPA alphabet soup of agencies, but according to this encyclopedia entry this series from Women’s Home Companion dates back to 1913 and links the to eugenics movement.

After warning against the use of home remedies for whooping cough instead of seeking a doctor the “counselor” Sarah Francis Logan writes:

This brings me to another thing: the danger of kissing on the mouth, which many women regard lightly. Do not allow anyone to kiss your baby on the mouth or hands. Many people who seem perfectly well and healthy have an insidious disease that may be communicated to your baby by a kiss. It is the most direct way of transmitting infection.

Of course some people will laugh at you and say you are fussy, but then these same people are amused at “system” in the feeding of babies. They are like farmers who continue to raise poor cattle and poor crops because they scorn new methods. Do not let anyone’s ridicule of your ideas effect you, because you are doing the wisest and best thing for your baby.

In retrospect the eugenics connection comes across clear in the the farming metaphor.

As an American I think of kissing on the mouth and the kissing of hands as a greeting that is quintessentially European. I was never raised to kiss my parents or any relative on the mouth. Aunts and grandmothers got kisses on the cheek, uncles and grandfathers got hugs. Kissing on the lips is only ever a romantic gesture and I never did it until I was an older teenager. At any rate, it was far too intimate to share with a stranger and inappropriate to do with family. On the rare occasion when a misinterpreted turn of the face did result in accidentally kissing my mother or father on the lips it was always a mild shock. Whoops!

It’s interesting to reflect that gestures of intimacy and affection have a history. Maybe in the past Americas did greet each other with kisses like Europeans? What caused this practice to fall out of favor? Then in the early twentieth century there was a great influx of eastern and southern European immigration to the US. Did they bring their dangerous kisses with them? The science of eugenics stood ready to defend Americans against this unhygienic practice much as early nutrition science was marshaled to prove the unhealthy consequences of mixing A + 2B into goulash.

I should be done creating links from the finding aid to Dspace next week and will share the link to the document here. With a click you will be transported through the magic of the Internet to W&M and see what I’ve been up to.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

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