Bundling, a custom in old New England and elsewhere in the northern colonies of early America, was the practice of unmarried people of the opposite sex lying in bed together with their clothes on. It seems to have been most prevalent in rural areas, especially among the poor, and may have been most widely practiced in the last half of the eighteenth century.
Intimacy Before Marriage, Practical Way to Accommodate Courtship
The custom seems to have been primarily a way to give sweethearts a bit of intimacy before marriage and to accommodate courting in cold climates. Consider a suitor who had walked miles in dreadful weather to be with his loved one and then stayed late. The choice for the young lady and her family was either turning the young man out into the dark and cold, or allowing him to stay overnight. In homes where there were no spare beds, he would have to sleep on a chair in front of the fire if he stayed overnight.
Bundling saved firewood and the young man’s back. Of course, human nature being what it is, young couples did not always stay within the rules. If a young woman became pregnant, the young man was expected to marry her. Bundling or no bundling, such events were common enough. Historians have calculated that about one in three first-born children during parts of the colonial period were conceived out of wedlock.
After the practice died out, an old man who had bundled as a young man with five or six different women was asked if he was ashamed of it: “Why no! What is the use of sitting up all night and burning out fire and lights, when you could just as well get under kiver and keep warm; and when you get tired, take a nap, and wake up fresh, and go at it again? Why d–n it, there wasn’t half as many bastards then as there are now.”
Sofa in Summer More Dangerous
According to one historian, folks in the larger towns of New England, uncomfortable with bundling, began buying sofas as a more proper place for young lovers to get to know one another. According to reports, this produced more “natural consequences” than bundling had. Said one writer: “The sofa in summer is more dangerous than the bed in winter.”
Some Americans viewed bundling as charming, though Washington Irving may not have been entirely serious when, in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, he gave bundling credit for producing a robust populace: “[I]t 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, without the license of law or the benefit of clergy . . .they grew up a long-sided, raw-boned, hardy race of whoreson whalers, wood-cutters, fishermen, and peddlers; and strapping corn-fed wenches.”
Bad Taste or Immoral?
Some, Americans though have been uncomfortable with descriptions of bundling. In the 1960s, the chairman of a social studies department at a high school on Long Island ripped out from history textbooks four pages about bundling.The pages were, he thought, “in bad taste and might even be immoral.” Angry parents responded, demanding and receiving the torn out pages.
Bundling does not seem to have been unique to America. A traveler in Wales in 1804 said the custom there was similar to that in America: “The lover steals, under the shadows of night to the bed of the fair one, into which (retaining an essential part of his dress) he is admitted without any shyness or reserve.” A similar tradition of “queesting” was practiced in Holland and there may have been some similar practice in Central Asia.
Tale of a Dutchman’s Daughter
In New England, bundling may have been sometimes done to accommodate guests, although anecdotes about this have the ring of tall tales. One man told of traveling around Pennsylvania and stopping at an tavern for the night. The tavernkeeper, a Dutchman, directed him to a bed. When the man said there was someone in it, the tavernkeeper said: “Oh! Dat ish only mine taughter; she won’t hurt nopody.”
Another example involves a British officer no less who stopped at Williamstown, Massachusetts, during the American Revolution. He stayed with a family in a small log hut. When it was late, he asked where he should sleep. The woman of the house pointed to one bed and said, “Our Jonathon and I will sleep in this, and our Jemima and you shall sleep in that.” The officer was astonished and offered to sleep on the floor. The Jonathan, the woman’s husband laughed: “Oh la, Mr. Ensign. You won’t be the first man our Jemima has bundled with, will it Jemima.” Jemima, about 16 or 17, replied: “No, Father, by many, but it will be with the first Britainer.”