Fort Klock Historic Restoration
& Indian Castle Church

The Art of Bundling

Being an Inquiry into the Nature and Origins of that Curious but Universal Folk-Custom, with an Exposition of the Rise & Fall of Bundling in the Eastern Part of North America.

By Dana Doten, 1938

Chapter I


For, observe- that open loves are held to be more honorable than secret ones.... Consider, too, how great is the encouragement which all the world gives to the lover.... And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things. -PLATO, The Symposium.

IF YOU ARE eligible for the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution you have bundling blood in you. More especially is this true if your forbears lived north of the Mason-Dixon line, a circumstance which should recompense you for those same ancestors' failure to provide your line with colored slaves and a "big house before the war." Because bundling is a proud heritage. While it is not always possible to establish that a member of your family took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, you may be sure that most members bundled, And bundling was more important in early American history than driving the British out of Boston.

In the decadent era since Victoria passed to her imperial reward there have been frequent evidences of that fascination with the primitive which often distinguishes an artificial society. To match the bucolics of the later Roman Empire, and the shepherdesses of Marie Antoinette's Versailles, we may point to our Tahiti and Ball fads, to our love of Mexican primitives, to the renaissance of maple furniture and warming pans. For fifty years we had been hiding Windsor chairs under thick coats of dismal paint and throwing maple chests of drawers out into the woodshed. If the furniture people allowed us a pittance on the mahogany four-poster towards a new brass-bed we felt singularly fortunate. And then the stream-lined sophistication of the post-war period developed its inevitable accompaniment of primitivism, and we went mad over antiques. Everything that savored of Colonial America became sacred, became sought after, became expensive. Duplex apartments went completely maple; penthouses were arrayed with hooked rugs and ancient andirons. It was smart to be atavistic.

But, with all this, and with the parallel phenomenon of scores of books about early America, the most captivating and the most vital feature of Colonial social life remains still a closed chapter. In the same way that enthusiastic collectors have scraped the paint from many a battered sideboard to reveal the simple loveliness of the original birdseye or curly maple, so this slight volume will attempt to peel off the ugly, deceptive veneer with which historians have overlaid the customs and behavior of eighteenth century America and give, for the first time a fair glimpse of bundling. It will be seen presently that bundling is the curly maple of American character-as indigenous, as straightforward, as charming. And, one may add, as excellently adapted to the needs of the period.

Many people are aware that such a thing as bundling existed; it is commonly leered at by smart debunkers as flagrant evidence of Puritan hypocrisy. Practically every New Englander at least has heard that, in the old days, Yankee lads and lasses courted in bed with their clothes on when the weather was cold. Usually the only reaction is that of sly smugness-"we didn't invent every kind of monkey-business, I guess!"

But there are no modern books on bundling, and very few contemporary references to illuminate the subject. How bundling started, why it flourished, how universal it was, what were the ceremonies and etiquette which grew up about it, and what the reason for its disappearance-such questions are still unanswered in the public mind. This applies as well to the scholar, the sociologist, the historian, as to the man in the street. Especially the historian, who has avoided the subject of bundling as studiously as a genealogist shuns piracy. And yet no single phenomenon was as central to the entire fabric of Colonial life, to the religious, judicial, and economic pattern of the eighteenth century in America, as bundling. To understand why, how, and when young people bundled we must understand the full range of the times, we must comprehend sympathetically the entire social fabric of the era.

As it existed, mainly in New England and in the Middle Atlantic States, in the decades before the Revolutionary War (its high point of development) bundling was known under two aspects. In the first place, there was the bundling of travelers.

In a countryside not completely equipped with hostelries, and in farm houses not too well supplied with beds, it frequently happened that strangers, appealing for a night's lodging, might be hospitably invited to sleep with one or more of the members of the family.

In his TRAVELS THROUGH THE INTERIOR PARTS or AMERICA, a young Englishman named Thomas Anburey has left us the following pleasant if rather highly colored description of this type of bundling. It occurs in a letter dated November 20, 1777.

"The Night before we came to this town (Williamstown, Mass.) being quartered in a small log-hut, I was convinced in how innocent a view the Americans look upon that indelicate custom they call bundling: though they have remarkable good feather beds, and are extremely neat and clean, still I preferred my hard mattress, as being accustomed to it; this evening, however, owing to the badness of the roads, and the weakness of my mare, my servant had not arrived with my baggage, at the time for retiring for rest; there being only two beds in the house, I inquired which I was to sleep in, when the old woman replied, 'Mr. Ensign,' here should observe to you, that the New England people are very inquisitive as to the rank you may have in the army. 'Mr. Ensign,' says she, 'Jonathan and I will sleep in this, and our Jemima and you shall sleep in that.' I was much astonished at such a proposal, and offered to sit up all night, when Jonathan immediately replied, 'Oh, la! Mr. Ensign, you won't be the first man our Jemima has bundled with, will it, Jemima?' When little Jemima, who, by the bye, was a very pretty black-eyed girl, of about 16, or 17, archly replied, 'No Father, by many, but it will be the first Britainer,' (the name they give to Englishmen). In this dilemma, what could I do?-the smiling invitation of pretty Jemima-the eye, the lip, the-Lord ha' mercy, where am I going to?-but wherever I may be going to now, I did not go to bundle with her-in the same room with her father and mother, my kind host and hostess too!-I thought of that-I thought of more besides-to struggle with the passions of nature; to clasp Jemima in my arms-to-do what? you'll ask-Why, to do-nothing! for if amid all these temptations, the lovely Jemima had melted into kindness, she had been an outcast from the world-treated with contempt, abused by violence, and left to perish!-No, Jemima; I could have endured all this to have been blessed with you, but it was too vast a sacrifice, when you was to be victim!-Suppose how great the test of virtue must be, or how cold the American constitution, when this unaccountable custom is in hospitable repute, and perpetual practice.

We must remember, by the way, that young Anburey was writing to his wife.

Such a custom was not peculiar to this country, but had been a practice under similar conditions in many parts of the world. Nor, it appears, did this type of bundling develop many distinctively American features. Born of necessity and goodwill it was a readily understandable device, enduring as long as circumstances rendered it logical, passing with the need.

But the real bundling was the bundling of lovers.

Here it was that Yankee ingenuity, American independence, and Anglo-Saxon simplicity combined to construct from the environment of the day a system of behavior which was at once adequate, effective, and entertaining, while remaining consistent with legal practice and religious conviction.

The bundling of lovers belongs to the folklore of a rural people. The precedents, among many races and in many ages are widespread and venerable. Even the casual student of our history is aware that the rural background of the majority of our people was a determining factor which colored the philosophy of our Constitution, and which, in fact, affected the machinery of government under which we still operate. Thomas Jefferson praised the virtues of country life, planned for an America unsullied by urbanism, free, happy, and rustic. The society which Jefferson hoped to perpetuate, dreamed of perfecting, was, among other things, a bundling society. We no longer bundle. Nor do we win Revolutions and produce Thomas Jeffersons.

A few verses of the following popular eighteenth century song reflect the enthusiasm of country girls and the approval of country mothers.

It shan't be so, they rage and storm,
And country girls in clusters swarm,
And fly and buz, 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 or shame,
For we, your mothers, did the same;

"The Yankee nation are a set of talking, guessing, swapping and bundling sons of women," wrote Grant Thorburn in his NOTES OF VIRGINIA. Yankees have talked, guessed and swapped themselves to the commercial supremacy of the world, but bundling, alas, has not kept pace.

"Bundle-to lie or sleep together on or in the same bed without undressing." The essentials of bundling are thus indicated with usual dictionary terseness. Charles Francis Adams goes into greater detail. "It was a practice growing out of the social and industrial conditions of a primitive people.... Two young persons proposed to marry. They and their families were poor; they lived far apart from each other; they were at work early and late all the week. Under these circumstances Saturday evening and Sunday were the recognized time for meeting. The young man came to the house of the girl after Saturday's sundown, and they could see each other until Sunday afternoon, when he had to go back to his own home and work. The houses were small, and every nook in them occupied; and in order that the man might not be turned out of doors, or the two be compelled to sit up all night at a great waste of lights and fuel, and that they might be in each other's company, they were 'bundled' up together in bed, in which they lay side by side and partially clothed."

The picture is slightly too specific. Bundling was never restricted to "young persons" who "proposed to marry"; nor was it merely a weekend event. Adams does, however, stress the most important features of the environment which produced the bundling technique, namely the isolation of country life, the infrequency of leisure, the relative costliness of light and fuel. To these should be added the actual scarcity of beds in a day when a bed was often the most important item in a will, and always a cherished family possession. Furthermore, sofas were not introduced until about 1750, and were then for a long time a city luxury whose immoral influence was strongly suspected by honest bundling country folk.

The prudent historian of social behavior is wary of too close definition. Even Emily Post gives herself a little latitude in describing contemporary social customs which approach her impeccable standards (if, indeed, any such customs exist among living men and women). She permits, for instance, two ways of eating corn on the cob. It would be unwise, therefore, to treat of bundling as though it were a rigid code, such as a church service, or an exactly regulated game, such as chess. All manner of variants existed: the practice was modified or elaborated, depending upon a dozen different factors-the section of the country, time of year, social position of the principals, and, above all, individual taste and fancy.

We may safely start, however, with the general rule that bundling was a normal routine, as unquestioned and consistent a procedure for courting couples as is the modem automobile ride. It was in no sense an exceptional indulgence or an isolated adventure. When modern parents retire, leaving the field to daughter and her sophomore, they turn down the thermostat and suggest a similar policy about the radio. It is all as uneventful as writing the milkman's nightly missive. Eighteenth century parents were quite as undisturbed, as unaware of anything extraordinary, when they tucked the young couple into bed, or perhaps simply handed down the candlestick and left them to bundle themselves. If this strikes us as casual, we have only to remember what Europe said about us when we abolished chaperons. Americans have always been distinguished for making money and for trusting their daughters-except, possibly, during part of the nineteenth century, when the first trait ran riot while the second languished.

An anonymous popular ballad of the 1780's compresses the philosophy of bundling into three explicit stanzas.

Nature's request is, give me rest,
Our bodies seek repose;
Night is the time, and 'tis no crime
To bundle in our cloaths.
Since in a bed, a man and maid
May bundle and be chaste;
It doth no good to burn up wood
It is a needless waste.
Let coat and shift be turned adrift,
And breeches take their flight,
An honest man and virgin can
Lie quiet all the night.

Whether the occasion were a weekend visit, such as Adams describes, or an evening call, preceded by a several mile walk through the snow, bundling was what you did when you went courting in the country in eighteenth century New England. It was what you were expected to do. Hesitance on your part would be ascribed by the family not to refinement and nobility but to churlishness. It might even raise the suspicion that you had been exposed to city ways, and were familiar with the insidious comforts of the sofa, in which case you were certainly fit companion for a straightforward country girl.

Country people went to bed at an even earlier hour two centuries ago than they do now. Modern stoves or furnaces and electric lights are more conducive to the comfort of "setting around" after supper than were the early fireplaces and candles; and to the Colonial family Bible your modem farmer adds a wide variety of reading latter, from the local weekly to Department of Agriculture Bulletins and a current Hearst Sunday supplement. In the mid-eighteenth century, however, the young man probably ran the gauntlet of only a brief general conversation with his sweetheart's family before weariness and the diminishing glow of the logs reminded the older folks that it was bedtime. At this juncture the suitor would have been faced with the unappealing alternatives of sitting up in an atmosphere rapidly growing too chilly even for lovers, or facing the long cold walk home after a brief and impersonal visit. Most of the living, and all the entertaining, was done in one room- there were no refuges of privacy for young people. Between the devil and the deep blue sea bundling intervened.

At the time we speak of, however, neither problem nor embarrassment existed. The young woman and her admirer, who might or might not be her betrothed, simply went to bed also, shortly after the others. In certain cases they bedded in the same room with the rest of the family, but more often the daughter had a room apart. Her mother might help to arrange the couple comfortably, or might look in later on to see that they had enough blankets, or they might be left to shift for themselves. Arriving in her own room, the girl would set down her candle and proceed to undress with no more ado than a contemporary debutante would make over slipping out of ski togs.

Undressing in a Colonial bedroom was not the thorough-going, leisurely affair it is today in steam-heated apartments; it was more like that gingerly disrobing practiced on a camping trip in the late fall. Without being too specific at this point, it may be said that feminine outer garments and shoes were always removed, while masculine coats and boots were likewise inevitably discarded. "Outer garments" was a flexible term, which might, on occasion, prove capable of perhaps undue extension. Despite this, however, there was always something- Jeff, and often a variety of things left. Occasionally, perhaps, the undressing was merely preliminary to donning an especially contrived bundling robe (Colonial hostess pajamas), equipped perhaps, with a draw-string at the bottom. You will have heard considerable nonsense about the arrangement in bed-stories of a formidable "bundling board" which separated the lovers, of elaborate arrangement of the covers-each person rolled tightly in a separate blanket, one version has it-and the like. But the basic premise of the entire proceeding was so obviously one of simple trust, bundling was so clearly a homespun honor system, that we may assume most of these precautions to be either odd exceptions or symptoms of a later, degenerate era in bundling.

Comfortably snuggled down into one of the enormous feather beds of the period, the lovers were at last in a position, literally and figuratively, to carry on uninterruptedly those fascinatingly, endless, intimate conversations which have been a perquisite of enamored youth from the beginning of time. Here at last was warmth and privacy and the long winter night to talk, or whisper, away.

In the morning the suitor was up with the family and, frequently without waiting for breakfast, was plodding across the snow-drifted fields towards his own home soon after daylight. He would reach there in time for chores, and the steady cycle of farm work would go on. Infinitely better than struggling home under the icy stars, infinitely more satisfying to remember than an hour's casual gossip about weather and politics with a roomful of potential in-laws.

That early rising was not, however, the unvarying practice, is indicated by the diary of a certain Miss Foote (about 1775) who speaks of her sister Ellen having bundled with a young man "till sun about three hours high," as quite a matter of course. A few weeks afterwards they were "cried" and married, we learn.

After this brief glimpse of bundling at its height, of a typical, honest, pre-Revolutionary bundling couple, we are in a better position to consider the origin and historical development of the institution, to analyze the economic, social, religious, and legal aspects, and to render judgment on the success of this unique early American experiment in what might be called pragmatic romance.

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