Rhett Butler did it, Jane Austen’s heroes did it, but did anybody ever really kiss anyone’s hand?
I was all prepared to have a history of hand kissing and how it was done, but to be honest; I could find very few references to it in any historical etiquette books. And fun fact, Jane Austen’s novels contain only 4 instances of hand kissing.
Emily Post doesn’t mention it at all in her original etiquette book. I consulted a wide variety of books from the 1830s to the 1920s, and they hardly mention kissing at all, let alone how to properly kiss a lady’s hand.
I did find two instances describing how hand kissing is not done in the US.
The Handbook of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington from 1889 which says:
The form of kissing by way of salutation between opposite sexes is obsolete in the United States, except among relatives. Among ladies it still prevails, but it should be confined to intimate friends, and then on the forehead or cheek. In ancient times it was in vogue between the sexes in the best society, it being applied to the cheek, forehead, or hand. It is still customary to a limited degree in Germany. In the United States it is never used, except restricted as above.
And in Manners, Culture, and Dress of the Best American Society from 1894 which talks about “the kiss of respect”:
The kiss of mere respect- almost obsolete in this country- is made on the hand. This custom is retained in Germany and among the gentlemen of the most courtly manners in England.
In fact, I didn’t find any real reference to it at all until Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette from 1967 (though she probably also included it in earlier editions). Fortunately she had a lot to say about it!
In her section on the “Masculine Graces” she describes how to perform a hand kiss in case an American man encounters a married French woman who presents her hand for a kiss (hand kisses are apparently not given to unmarried ladies unless they are “of a certain age” aka really old). The technique is for the man to “take her fingers lightly in his, palm upward, bow slightly over her hand…, and touch his lips to the back of it, not really implant a kiss.” She also calls it extremely rude to kiss the palm of the hand and says that some foreigners will try it on naïve American ladies who don’t know any better.
When discussing different customs abroad, Vanderbilt says that hand-kissing should be impersonal with the lips never actually touching the hand, or even becoming a bow over the hand. She does quote an Italian saying that they don’t really do hand kissing anymore except “with American women we go to some lengths because they seem to expect it and like it and we want to please.”
Hand kissing was probably originally something you did to kings and other rulers, to show fealty. Wikipedia suggests that the custom of men kissing the hands of women originated in Poland/Lithuania and the Spanish courts in the 17th and 18th century, but doesn’t really provide sources on that. It also mentions that it has fallen out of favor and replaced by handshakes or cheek kissing, though it does mention that former French President Jacques Chirac made it his trademark, which apparently is completely true.
I will say, I have had my hand kissed before, in a rather ridiculous circumstance, and it was very swoony. So, if you think you have the finesse to pull it off on occasion, go for it! But be warned unless you are very, very charming, it is likely to come off as creepy and inappropriate.