What does measuring tape have in common with kissing? In the 19th century, they were closely connected, and the Powell Family Papers held at William & Mary delightfully tell us how. In 1852, Hattie Powell celebrated New Year’s Eve at a party in Henry, IL. She described the shenanigans in charming detail and mentioned “measuring six yards of tape” in the context of kissing. This reference sent me down the rabbit hole of Victorian parlor games where I learned that “measuring six yards of tape” was more than a simple kiss. There was a prescribed method, stance, and expected number of kisses. The book, “The Young Folks’ Cyclopædia of Games and Sports” published in 1890, explains, “This is done by joining both hands, pulling apart as far as possible, and then stretching out the hands to each side and kissing.” Several other 19th century books had similar descriptions, which confirms that the phrase was universally understood.
But why is it “measuring tape?” That answer lies in the age-old method of approximating a yard of fabric or ribbon by holding one end at your chin and holding the other end with an outstretched arm. One yard is equal to 36 inches. I tried this with my mother’s measuring tape, and I reached 31 inches from my chin to the end of my outstretched arm. Therefore, this method is a quick estimate.
What does the number six represent? A book published in 1916 titled, “My Books of Indoor Games,” defines “yards of kisses” this way: “the two stand facing each other, take hold of hands and, stretching them to the full length, as if measuring ribbon, kissing each other as they measure each yard.” This account tells us that the number six represented the number of kisses, and it further confirms the link to measuring yards. The question of why “six” was often the designated number remains a mystery – except that six kisses are obviously better than five.
A key element in understanding these games is the concept of a “forfeit.” At some parties, you would be required to “pay a forfeit” if you broke a rule in a game. The forfeit would be the performance of a silly task. At other parties, everyone would forfeit a small possession like a ribbon or handkerchief and retrieve the items by “paying a forfeit.” When young people were involved, the forfeits were excellent opportunities for kissing. For example:
Kiss Rabbit-wise: The couple would take a piece of string or ribbon with a knot tied in the middle, put one end in each of their mouths, and nibble their way forward until they meet in the middle with a kiss.  Another publication referred to this as “Kissing by Measure.”  This is reminiscent of the spaghetti scene in Walt Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" and could be the inspiration.
Kiss the candlestick: In this example, a woman paying the forfeit would pull a candle out of a candlestick, hand it to her crush and kiss him, thus kissing the candlestick. 
Kiss your shadow: A savvy party guest knows to take a candle, cast his shadow on a potential sweetheart, and kiss her. 
Kiss your beau, without identifying him. This one seems like a pickle until you determine that kissing everyone in the room achieves the goal. 
The 19th century books on Victorian parlor games are delightful, but they can’t compare to the real life experiences endearingly described for us by Hattie Powell. The books tell us the rules, yet Hattie shows us how these games were used to produce drama, spark laughter, and create shock factor. We see Miss Clisbee, who was new in town, demand a kiss from a man she’d never met. Perhaps she was trying to raise her social profile. We watch Mr. Alber use the game to enact revenge against Hattie for spurning him earlier in the evening. You can read about the silly antics at this party in an earlier article here or hear me read and discuss the drama in a 20 minute segment on Historians on Tap (hosted by The Mosby Heritage Area Association and the Loudoun Museum).
1. John Denison Champlin and Arthur Elmore Bostwick, The Young Folk's Cyclopædia of Games and Sports (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), 348.
2. Clarence Squaremann, My Books of Indoor Games (Chicago: Whitman Publishing Co., 1916), 128.
3. Dean and Munday, Evening Amusements; Or, a New Book of Games and Forfeits: Containing, Among Other Games, the Old Soldier, - Short Answers, - the Trencher, the Key of the Garden-gate, - Buffy and the Shades, Evasion, - Whittington and His Cat, And, the Five Vowels. With Full and Plain Directions for Crying the Forfeits, and Numerous Amusing and Diverting Penances for Ladies as Well as Gentlemen (London: Dean and Munday, 1828), 25.
4. David Bogue, Round Games for All Parties: A Collection of the Greatest Variety of Family Amusements for Fireside or Pic-Nic, Second Edition (London: David Bogue, 1854), 197.
5. Charles Lanman, Adventures in the Wilds of the United States and British American Provinces Volume 1 (Philadelphia: John W. Moore, 1856), 152.
6. William Wells Newell, Games and Songs of American Children (New York: Dover Publications, 1965), 143.
The origins of "measuring tape" were still a mystery when I participated in Historians on Tap on April 2, 2020. After the event, I received messages from friends in the history realm who found references that helped solve the mystery. Many thanks to:
My Dad, Frank Herring, who was the first to suggest that "measuring yards of tape" referred to the old method of approximating a yard of fabric with an outstretched arm from memories of his mother. Parents are always right.
Laura Christiansen, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives of Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg, VA.
Susan Riggs of the Special Collections Research Center of Swem Library at William & Mary.
Joseph Roby, Genealogist at the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.
Thank you to the Historians on Tap:
Travis Shaw, Public Programs Coordinator of the Mosby Heritage Area Association.
AnneMarie Paquette, Director of Education of the Mosby Heritage Area Association.
Joe Rizzo, Executive Director of the Loudoun Museum.
"Kiss me Quick" by Currier & Ives; Courtesy of Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum Acquisition Funds. Photography by David Stansbury.