Brain Pickings

The First Kiss in Cinema, 1896

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How Thomas Edison made the kiss Hollywood’s favorite audience-courting device.

Thomas Edison is responsible for some of the most significant technological innovations of modern history, and is even credited as the inventor of the movie industry itself. But besides his visionary take on technology, he also had a keen eye for what audiences wanted, from his YouTube-like 1984 boxing cats to his 1901 footage of legendary aerialist Charmion’s trapeze strip-tease. It comes as no surprise, then, that Edison is also responsible for the very first on-screen kiss in cinema, featuring Canadian actress May Irwin. A mere 23 seconds in length, it was filmed in his Black Maria studio in New Jersey in 1896., at a time when public kissing was greatly frowned upon by Victorian society. In that era, the act of kissing was referred to as “sparkin’” if it took place indoors, usually the parlor, or “spoonin’” when performed outdoors, in a secluded spot far from the public’s eye.

This footage is often confused with another kiss scene, mistakenly credited by some as cinematic appearance of a kiss — it was, however, filmed in 1900 in Edison’s new glass-topped studio in New York City, and was quickly banned in most theaters. The two lovers remain anonymous.

For more on the evolution of kissing, see Joanne Wannan’s Kisstory: A Sweet and Sexy Look at the History of Kissing. For a scientific lens, my friend Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote the excellent The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us.

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