1903: The Year Boston Outlawed Kissing in Canoes

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED March 26, 2013
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In the early 1900s, canoes were popular date spots for young lovers. (© Bettmann/CORBIS) In the early 1900s, canoes were popular date spots for young lovers. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

In 1897, Norumbega Park opened in suburban Boston, situated along the Charles River. Thanks to its waterside location, canoeing quickly became a popular Norumbega pastime, as part of the “canoe craze” that was sweeping lakes and rivers around the United States at the turn of the century. Brought to the U.S. from England, recreational canoeing saw a surge in interest following the 1880 establishment of the American Canoeing Association and canoe mass-production, which lowered the price of the boats. Fortunately for water-loving women, canoe design also improved to make the vessels less prone to tipping over, which had posed imminent danger for a female passenger outfitted in the head-to-toe, heavy woolen fashions of the day that could effectively drag them underwater.

Meanwhile on land, bicycles were becoming the hottest mode of Victorian transportation for speed-loving young men and tradition-flouting young women, who scandalized elders with their newfangled, unladylike physical activity. And, as I learned from Hunter Oatman-Standford’s Love Boats: The Delightfully Sinful History of Canoes at Collectors Weekly, young couples were similarly going gaga for canoe dates that facilitated make-out sessions in the days before cars would serve as four-wheeled bedrooms. Canoeing offered such unthinkable freedom to lovey dovey couples who were among the first generation of singles who dated outside the home rather than courted each other under close parental supervision, Oatman-Standford writes that “adolescents took to the waters with the urgency of salmon fighting their way upstream.”

Of course, this kind of public petting riled authorities who considered canoe cuddling immoral and depraved. “If these canoes could speak, what awful tales they would tell,” one Bostonian minister reportedly told a local newspaper in 1903 when the Metropolitan Parks Commission in Massachusetts took action against “canoedling” (grammar side note: this is not the etymology of “canoodle,” but it was still terribly clever of folks at the time to print pro-canoe postcards featuring this play-on words). That year, in addition to banning drinking and gambling on a six-mile stretch of the Charles River included in Norumbega Park, the Commission also outlawed kissing on canoes, punishable by a $20 fine. That might sound like a minor slap on the wrist until that fine is adjusted for inflation, translating it to about $500 in modern currency. Yet even by early 20th-century standards, the no-kissing rule was laughable, as evidenced by this quip in a 1903 Boston Herald article: “At that rate it is estimated that over a million dollars’ worth of kisses are exchanged at that popular canoeing resort every fine Saturday night and Sunday.”

The Metropolitan Park Commission brought in far less than $1 million, though. Between 1903 and 1905, only 37 couples were arrested for the kissing infraction, despite “sprawl out” protests in which young canoeing enthusiasts would intentionally lay down and even make out on the river to rile parks authorities. The anti-kissing regulation didn’t last long, either, as a court decision struck down one of the canoe-related arrests, and Victorian romantic mores began loosening. Soon enough, parents and adults fretting over teen sexuality would have plenty more to worry about once kids began hitting the road and taking dates to Lovers’ Lane, rather than Lover’s Lake.

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