Sunday, October 05, 2014

“Bundling” in New England courtship

Despite the best efforts of the clergy, European travelers during the second half of the eighteenth century often commented on the widespread custom of “bundling” in the northern and middle colonies among the rural and “lower people”. Andrew Burnaby, a young Englishman who toured Massachusetts in 1759, wrote about the custom, “At their usual time the old couple retire to bed, leaving the young ones to settle matters as they can, who, after having sat up as long as they think proper, get into bed together also, but without pulling off their undergarments, in order to prevent scandal.”

Johann Schoepf, who toured the region in 1783, assured his readers that “the young woman’s good name is in no ways impaired.” Visits took place neither “by stealth” nor only after the young couple was “actually betrothed”: “on the contrary, the parents are advised, and these meetings happen when the pair is enamored and merely wish to know each other better.”

European visitors were amazed by the openness with which young men and women spent the night together. “I have entered several bedchambers,” wrote Alexander Berthier, “where I have found bundling couples, who are not disturbed and continue to give each other all the honest tokens of their love.”  The degree of intimacy enjoyed during these nocturnal meetings must have varied from one couple to the next.  Although couples were supposed to keep their clothes on and to abstain from sex, the record indicates a significant number of early babies among the firstborn children of these couples after marriage. Often a couple was forced to confess their sin publicly in church before their baby could be baptized.

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in colonial America and the early republic.

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