Bundling is probably the best known courtship practice of colonial America, even though very little research on the topic has ever been published. It appears to contradict the otherwise sexually strict mores of the Puritans. It meant that a courting couple would be in bed together, but with their clothes on. With fuel at a premium, it was often difficult to keep a house warm in the evenings. Since this is when a man would be visiting his betrothed in her home, they would bundle in her bed together in order to keep warm. A board might be placed in the middle to keep them separate, or the young lady could be put in a bundling bag or duffel-like chastity bag. The best protection against sin were the parents, who were usually in the same room with them. It may not have been good enough, however, as records indicate that up to one-third of couples engaged in premarital relations in spite of the public penalties, such as being fined and whipped, that often resulted (Ingoldsby 1995).
There was no dating per se in colonial times. A man would ask the parents for a young woman's hand in marriage and once they agreed courting could begin. The young couple had already determined that they were in love, of course. Parents would approve of bundling for their daughter with the man she intended to marry. Although it was not always this strictly controlled, it is clear that the women determined when and with whom bundling occurred. It provided the opportunity for some physical closeness in an otherwise strict society.
The beginning of bundling is unclear, though it does seem certain that it was a practice brought by the Puritans from Europe. Some feel that its origin can be traced to the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz, where she laid at his feet and he invited her to "Tarry this night" (Ruth 3:6–13). Bundling was occasionally referred to as tarrying.
Historian Henry Reed Stiles railed against the practice:
This amazing increase may, indeed, be partly ascribed to a singular custom prevalent among them, commonly known by the name of bundling—a superstitious rite observed by the young people of both sexes, with which they usually terminated their festivities, and which was kept up with religious strictness by the more bigoted and vulgar part of the community. This ceremony was likewise, in those primitive times, considered as an indispensable preliminary to matrimony. . . . To this sagacious custom do I chiefly attribute the unparalleled increase of the Yankee tribe; for it is a certain fact, well authenticated by court records and parish registers, that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats annually born unto the state. (Stiles 1871, p. 50–53)
Some of the New England ministers defended the practice and saw no harm in it. Others condemned it as inappropriate. The Reverend Samuel Peters opined:
Notwithstanding the modesty of the females is such that it would be accounted the greatest rudeness for a gentleman to speak before a lady of a garter, knee, or leg, yet it is thought but a piece of civility to ask her to bundle, a custom as old as the first settlement in 1634. It is certainly innocent, virtuous and prudent, or the puritans would not have permitted it to prevail among their offspring. ... People who are influenced more by lust, than a serious faith in God, ought never to bundle. . . . I am no advocate for temptation; yet must say, that bundling has prevailed 160 years in New England, and, I verily believe, with ten times more chastity than the sitting on a sofa.
A Reverend James Haven is given credit by Stiles for helping to end the practice. He urged his congregation to abandon a practice which placed many in too much temptation and they were apparently shamed into more proper behavior:
Mr. Haven, in a long and memorable discourse, sought out the cause of the growing sin, and suggested the proper remedy. He attributed the frequent recurrence of the fault to the custom then prevalent, of females admitting young men to their beds, who sought their company with intentions to marriage. And he exhorted all to abandon that custom, and no longer expose themselves to temptations which so many were found unable to resist. . . . The females blushed and hung down their heads. The men, too, hung down their heads, and now and then looked out from under their fallen eyebrows, to observe how others supported the attack. If the outward appearance of the assembly was somewhat composed, there was a violent internal agitation in many minds. . . .The custom was abandoned. The sexes learned to cultivate the proper degree of delicacy in their intercourse, and instances of unlawful cohabitation in this town since that time have been extremely rare. (Laurer and Laurer 2000, p. 145)
In spite of such opposition, many women supported the practice, as evidenced by this poem from the period:
Some maidens say, if through the nation, Bundling should quite go out of fashion, Courtship would lose its sweets; and they Could have no fun till wedding day. It shant be so, they rage and storm, And country girls in clusters swarm, And fly and buzz, like angry bees, And vow they'll bundle when they please. Some mothers too, will plead their cause, And give their daughters great applause, And tell them, 'tis no sin nor shame, For we, your mothers, did the same. (Kephart and Jedlicka 1991, p. 63–64)
Courtship must adjust to environmental conditions, and young women were given greater freedom in frontier settlements than their parents had in Europe. Limited space in living quarters may explain the revival of the folk custom of bundling. It became common in New England in spite of being frowned upon by many community leaders. Eventually the advent of singing schools and other opportunities for young people to gather provided other settings for courtship (Groves 1934). After colonial youth returned from the French and Indian wars, bundling was attacked as immoral and became a vice rather than a simple custom, and it appears to have withered away over time.
Groves, E. (1934). The American Family. Chicago: Lippincott.
Ingoldsby, B., and Smith, S. (1995). Families in Multicultural Perspective. New York: Guilford Press.
Kephart, W., and Jedlicka, D. (1991). The Family, Society, and the Individual. New York: HarperCollins.
Laurer, R., and Lauer, J. (2000). Marriage and Family: The Quest for Intimacy. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Stiles, H. (1871). Bundling: Its Origin, Progress and Decline in America. New York: Book Collectors Association.
BRON B. INGOLDSBY
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