The custom of kissing babies on the head is now a key practice during political campaigns. In fact, it’s so mainstream, it had us wondering how this weird act came to be. Surprisingly, there is a long history associated with this campaign staple. We’ll break it down here.
‘A fine specimen of American childhood’
According to Alan Lowe, the museum director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, the earliest recorded instance of a politician kissing a baby was in 1833 during a campaign stop in New Jersey. Presidential candidate (and eventual president) Andrew Jackson stopped to greet a mother and her baby. Jackson stopped and, upon seeing the child, declared “Ah! There is a fine specimen of American childhood!”
Instead of President Andrew Jackson kissing the baby, he made his Secretary of War John Eaton kiss the child before passing him back to his mother. Although this was a very swift gesture, a tradition of kissing babies on the campaign trail was solidified.
By 1886, kissing babies was so common it was seen as an “official duty” for candidates on the campaign trail. In fact, an article in the magazine Babyhood: The Mother’s Nursery noted that “Henry Clay, Tom Corwin, and Van Buren did a good deal in that line [meaning kissing babies]; and I believe it was Davy Crockett who boasted that he had kissed every baby in his district.”
Although it seems like a strange practice, politicians initially started kissing babies to gain the favor of mothers and women who came out to witness these campaigns. In fact, in October 1920, The Nation noted that Democratic candidate James Cox was the only “Presidential candidate who has been able to kiss other people’s babies as if he enjoyed it. This has made him well-nigh invaluable with women voters, one of whom was heard to remark last night: Surely a man who kisses babies the way he does could never break the heart of the world.” Weird statement, but apparently an effective tactic!
Not everyone loved it
Not everyone was a huge fan of smooching babies. In the 1890s, feminist activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton disapproved of opportunistic baby-kissing. She believed it to be a matter of both children’s rights who couldn’t argue against being kissed, but also on the basis of poor hygiene. She once praised President Benjamin Harrison for refraining from kissing a baby offered to him.
Another president who avoided kissing babies was President Grover Cleveland, who reportedly avoided kissing babies. However, perhaps he avoided this practice because he didn’t want to remind crowds and reporters that he fathered an illegitimate child.
Similarly, in 1968, presidential candidate Richard Nixon told LIFE magazine that he “won’t wear a silly hat, or kiss a lady or a baby. I won’t ski down a hill or do any stunting like that- I’d look like a jerk.”
In 1984, democratic vice-president candidate Geraldine Ferraro told the then-New York Times political correspondent Maureen Dowd that “people hand me their babies, and as a mother, my instinctive reaction is how do you give your baby to someone who’s a total stranger to kiss, especially with so many colds going around? And especially when the woman is wearing lipstick?!” Although Ferraro might have disagreed with the practice, she inevitably did it on the campaign trail.
So, what’s the point?
It’s important to remember that women did not receive the vote until 1920. So, what was the point of all these male presidential candidates kissing their children before women were even able to vote? Alan Lowe suggests that perhaps candidates engage in baby-kissing because it can help them connect with the voters. He suggests, “the campaign trail can be a rough-and-tumble place, and this shows a softer, gentler side of candidates. Voters want to elect someone who is a decent person, and this makes them more relatable.”
Whatever the reason behind smooching babies is, politicians around the world continue to practice it today. It might seem outdated and unhygienic, but the fact is that it just might… work?