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 III

What It Was Like

DORINE: You must be very open to temptation if flesh can make such great impression on your senses. Sure, I know nothing of such warmth, for I myself am not so ready to take fire. I could see you naked from head to foot, and all your flesh would fail to tempt me. Moliere, Tartuffe.

UNDER the simple heading of Anecdote there appeared in the VERMONT ALMANAC AND REGISTER for 1799 a story which has the genuine ring of a well-established folk-tale.

"While the American troops were at Cambridge, 1775, an Indian chief from one of the western tribes, was on his way to visit them. It happened that he was detained a number of days at a gentleman's house in --. While he was there the gentleman's daughter received a visit from her suitor. One evening the honest native, thinking to divert himself a little in their company, went upstairs: But when he entered their chamber he stood in amaze, crying out, 'Ho! bed-No do for me Indian!' 'Why (says the spark), we can be good here as well as anywhere.' 'Yes! yes! but you can be wicked more better!' "

Deduction of the my-dear-Watson type is called for here. In the first place, the yarn not only refers to bundling-it presupposes bundling. The humor lies not in the bedding of the couple but in the honest native's reaction. Secondly, the incident is dated a quarter of a century previous to publication, in the early days of the Revolution when bundling was still in its prime in New England. Thirdly, the reference is to "a gentleman's house," supporting the belief that bundling was not, as many have claimed, restricted to the lower classes.

The story of the Indian, and of his primitive logic, reveals more to the student of bundling than would tomes of scholarly comment based on second-hand information. For original bundling material is rare-too rare for its absence to be accidental. One can only conclude that a conspiracy of silence effectively prevented any public or literary discussion of bundling during the century or more when it was an almost universal aspect of Colonial life.

Nor was this surprising. Literature in eighteenth century America was, aside from its political manifestations, by no means democratic. The clergy enjoyed a virtual monopoly of literary expression. Theocratic censorship was thus a simple matter. And we know that the puritan pulpit thundered against bundling, especially in the latter half of the period. After all there have been other instances in our literature of prudish suppression. Both Mark Twain and Bret Harte described the frontier life of the far west in terms of clear and vigorous realism. Yet neither author ever permits himself to tell the truth about the women of the mining towns, the dance hall girls and the rest. If Victorian standards could stifle honesty in such a virile and realistic artist as Mark Twain, is it surprising that an attenuated Puritanism could keep bundling out of Colonial literature? There must have been a rich store of of inventing the Blue Laws, in gratuitous malice and in baffled rage at failing to retain his Connecticut parish. No such repressive, crude, and altogether stupid legislation had ever smirched the statutes of the Colonies, it was violently asserted.

So poor Rev. Peters was crucified to posterity as a liar, a knave, and a disgrace to the cloth. Since he did not own a newspaper, there was then, as now, slight chance to fight back. A century later a mildly-interested scholar who took the trouble to actually read the original laws, discovered that in every important respect Peters had been right, and that the plain and fancy lying had been done by his opponents. But, as so often happens in the court of history, no one has moved to reopen the case.

It is a pleasure to record that Vermont-the ever-obstinate-elected Peters its first Episcopalian Bishop in 1794, though the Archbishop of Canterbury found reasons not to consecrate him.

This, then, is the man to whom we must look for the only extant contemporary critique of bundling. In his GENERAL HISTORY OF CONNECTICUT he devotes no less than nine pages of characteristically emphatic prose to analysis and defense of the custom. Here is no condescendingly curious European traveler, no properly squeamish Victorian antiquary, no antiseptically objective modern sociologist-this long-neglected voice has the timbre of a real eighteenth century Connecticut Yankee. It has health, and color, and sense to it.

"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," said the Reverend Peters, "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, for whom in general they would suffer crucifixion. Children brought up with the chastest ideas, with so much religion as to believe that the omniscient God sees them in the dark, and that angels guard them when absent from their parents, will not, nay, cannot, act a wicked thing. People who are influenced more by lust, than a serious faith in God, who is too pure to behold iniquity with approbation, ought never to bundle. If any man, thus a stranger to the love of virtue, of God, and the Christian religion, should bundle with a young lady in New England, and behave himself unseemly towards her, he must first melt her into passion, and expel heaven, death, and hell, from her mind, or he will undergo the chastisement of Negroes turned mad-if he escape with life, it will be owing to the parents flying from their bed to protect him.... 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. I had daughters, and speak from near forty years' experience. Bundling takes place only in cold seasons of the year-the sofa in summer is more dangerous than the bed in winter. About the year 1756, Boston, Salem, Newport, and New York, resolving to be more polite than their ancestors, forbade their daughters bundling on the bed with any young men whatever, and introduced a sofa to render courtship more palatable and Turkish. Whatever it was owing to, whether to the sofa, or any uncommon excess of the feu d'esprit, there went abroad a report that this raffinage produced more natural consequences than all the bundling among the boors with their rurales pedantes, through every village in New England besides.

"In 1776, a clergyman from one of the polite towns, went into the country, and preached against the unchristian custom of young men and maidens lying together on a bed. He was no sooner out of the church, than attacked by a shoal of good old women, with, 'Sir, do you think we and our daughters are naughty, because we allow of bundling?' 'You lead yourselves into temptation by it.' They all replied at once, 'Sir, have you been told thus, or has experience taught it you?' The Levite began to lift up his eyes, and to consider of his situation, and bowing, said, 'I have been told so.' The ladies, una voce, bawled out, 'Your informants, sir, we conclude, are those city ladies who prefer a sofa to a bed; we advise you to alter your sermon, by substituting the word sofa for bundling, and on your return home preach it to them, for experience has told us that city folks send more children into the country without fathers or mothers to own them, than are born among us; therefore, you see, a sofa is more dangerous than a bed.' The poor priest, seemingly convinced of his blunder, exclaimed, 'Nec vitia nostra, nee remedia pati possumus,' hoping thereby to get rid of his guests; but an old matron pulled off her spectacles, and, looking the priest in the face like a Roman heroine, said, 'Noli putare me haec auribus tuis dare! Others cried out to the priest to explain his Latin. 'The English,' said he, 'is this: Who is me that I sojourn in Meseck, and dwell in the tents of Kedar!' One pertly retorted, 'Gladii decussati sunt gemina presbyteri clavis.' The priest confessed his error, begged pardon, and promised never more to preach against bundling, or to think amiss of the custom; the ladies generously forgave him, and went away.

"It may seem very strange to find this custom of bundling in bed attended with so much innocence in New England, while in Europe it is thought not safe or scarcely decent to permit a young man and maid to be together in private anywhere. But in this quarter of the old world the viciousness of the one, and the simplicity of the other, are the result merely of education and habit. It seems to be a part of heroism, among the polished nations of it, to sacrifice the virtuous fair one, whenever an opportunity offers, and thence it is concluded that the same principles actuate those of the new world. It is egregiously absurd to judge of all countries by one. In Spain, Portugal and I Italy, jealousy reigns; in France, England, and Holland, suspicion; in the West and East Indies, lust; in New England, superstition. These four blind deities govern Jews, Turks, Christians, infidels, and heathen. Superstition is the most amiable. She sees no vice with approbation but persecution, and self-preservation is the cause of her seeing that.

"My insular readers will, I hope, believe me, when I tell them that I have seen, in the West Indies, naked boys and girls, some fifteen or sixteen years of age, waiting at table and at tea, even when twenty or thirty virtuous English ladies were in the room; who were under no more embarrassment at such an awful sight in the eyes of English people that have not traveled abroad, than they would have been at the sight of so many servants in livery. Shall we censure the ladies of the West Indies as vicious above all their sex, on account of this local custom? By no means; for long experience has taught the world that the West Indian white ladies are virtuous prudes. Where superstition reigns, fanaticism will be minister of state; and the people, under the taxation of zeal, will shun what is commonly called vice, with ten times more care than the polite and civilized Christians, who know what is right and what is wrong from reason and revelation. Happy would it be for the world, if reason and revelation were suffered to control the mind and passions of the great and wise men of the earth, as superstition does that of the simple and less polished! When America shall erect societies for the promotion of chastity in Europe, in return for the establishment of European arts in the American capitals, then Europe will discover that there is more Christian philosophy in American bundling than can be found in the customs of nations more polite.

"I should not have said so much about bundling, had not a learned divine * of the English church published his travels through some parts of America, wherein this remarkable custom is represented in an unfavorable light, and as prevailing among the lower class of people. The truth is, the custom prevails among all classes, to the great honor of the country, its religion, and ladies. The virtuous may be tempted; but the tempter is despised. Why it should be thought incredible for a young man and young woman innocently and virtuously to lie down together in a bed with a great part of their clothes on, I cannot conceive. Human passions may be alike in every region; but religion, diversified as it is, operates differently in different countries.

"Upon the whole, had I daughters now, I would venture to let them bundle on the bed, or even on the sofa, after a proper education, sooner than adopt the Spanish mode of forcing young people to prattle only before the lady's mother the chitchat of artless lovers. Could the four quarters of the world produce a more chaste, exemplary and beautiful company of wives and daughters than are in Connecticut, I should not have remaining one

* Dr. Andrew Bumaby. TRAVELS THROUGH THE MIDDLE SETTLEMENTS
IN NORTH AMERICA, IN THE YEARS 1759 AND '6o. London, 1775.

favorable sentiment for the province. But the soil, the rivers, the ponds, the ten thousand landscapes, together with the virtuous and lovely women which now adorn the ancient kingdoms of Connecticote, Sassacus, and Quinnipiog, would tempt me into the highest wonder and admiration of them, could they once be freed of the skunk, the moping-owl, rattlesnake and fanatic Christian."

Dr. Burnaby's reference to bundling was, in fact, borrowed almost verbatim from Lieutenant Anburey, whom we have already quoted in Chapter I. It is included here as representative of the typical European travelers' account of bundling in America.

"A very extraordinary method of courtship, which is sometimes practiced among the lower people of this province, and is called "Tarrying," has given occasion to this reflection. When a man is enamored of a young woman, and wishes to marry her, he proposes the affair to her parents (without whose consent no marriage in the Colony can take place); if they have no objection they allow him to tarry with her one night, in order to make his court to her. 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. If the parties agree, it is all very well. The banns are published, and they are married without delay. If not, they part, and possibly never see each other again; unless, which is an accident that seldom happens, the forsaken fair-one prove pregnant, and then the man is obliged to marry her, under pain of excommunication."

English visitors preferred to consider bundling an essentially "lower class" activity, possibly on the basis of conditions in the British Isles, where poverty bred customs which might be confused with bundling. But, although the Gibbon of bundling, worthy Stiles, accepts this limitation-for not dissimilar reasons-Peters seems to be correct in calling the practice universal. Bear in mind that the Colonies at that time were overwhelmingly rural, and that the English could never get over the habit of confusing the American farmer with the European peasant. To this day they tend to suffer from the same illusion. And Stiles, addressing himself to mid-Victorian elegance, might well have taken advantage of such a convenient hypothesis as the "lower class" development of bundling.

We have thus far touched on two of the types of bundling source material, in addition to the Rev. Peters, namely (1) the newspaper anecdote, and (2) the traveler's journal. The remaining kinds of contemporary evidence are (3) bundling songs, (4) letters and diaries, and (5) the recorded recollections of old people.

The following song, contributed by "Persius" to the Vermont Gazette, December 8, 1788, belongs chronologically to the period of the decline of bundling, as both the date and the tone indicate, but the piece will serve to illustrate the rustic realism of these early bundling jingles.

Bundling
To tell all the ways of the moderns to court,
Describe all the kinds of their nocturnal sport,
Requires greater knowledge, than I can pretend to;
Then pray to be contented with what I here send you
Which, in short, will be this, and no more you'll expect
(In troth, not a word the gallants to direct.)
But just a few things I have seen in my life time,
0' the boys and the girls before yielding to wifedom.
And Jonathan went (by an instance to show you)
To see his young Dolly; and first, 'twas, how do you?

Then set by himself, not a single word said,
'Till the people grown sleepy, had drawn off to bed.
But soon as he saw the good people all gone,
Himself and young Dority now left alone,
He hitch'd up his chair, and the first word he said,
Was, curses on it, Miss Dority, let's go to bed?
To bed! She replied, just in edge of the even.
Why, its not more than eight, if it is more than seven.
But Jonathan tried, and he prov'd to her clearly,
That by several hours it could not be so early-
She partly consented-don't tease me and fret me-
We shall lie so dumb close-but mother won't let me-
O phy! he replied, why I never will tell on't-
Come let's go to bed and we'll have a fine spell on't.
This argument came with so easy a force,
She knew not what to do, or which way turn her course:
But without further arguing one with the other,
They pulled off their shoes, and so bundled together.
Then what was transacted no one can relate,
Those only excepted who've shar'd the same fate-
But, when morning appeared, Dol Jonathan shoves,
He jump'd out of bed, and pull'd up his ... gloves:
To make out the rhyme-tho' in truth of the matter,
The other I own would have suited much better.

 

Some Guggenheim Fellow of the future may well accumulate a volume of bundling letters, gathered through years of attic-searching in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. For our ancestors were excellent and uninhibited correspondents. One such missive appeared in The Yankee, at Portland, Maine, August 13, 1828. Again, the evidence is of a later period than the heyday of bundling, but it does add weight to certain of our contentions, helping to establish, for instance, the late survival of bundling in Maine, and strongly supporting our belief that the custom was an open and universal type of behavior for honest, prosperous country folk.

This letter was written by a young girl who was visiting her Aunt in Franklin County, Maine, She writes:

"You remember how you told me, before I left home, that I was so well looking that if I went so far back in the country I should be very much admired and nattered, and have as many lovers as I could wish for. I find it all true. The people here are remarkably kind and attentive to me; they seem to think that I must be something more than common because I have always lived so near Portland.

"But I must tell you that since I have been here I have had a beau. You must know that the young men, in particular, are very attentive to me. Well, among these is one who is considered the finest young man in the place, and well he may be-he owns a good farm, which has a large barn upon it, and a neat two-story house, all finished. These are the fruits of his own industry; besides, he is remarkably good-looking, is very large but well-proportioned, and has a good share of what I call real manly beauty. Soon after my arrival here I was introduced to this man-no, not introduced neither, for they never think of such a thing here. They all know me of course, because I am a stranger. Some days, three, four, or half a dozen, call to see us, whom I never before saw or heard of; they come and speak to me as if I were an old acquaintance, and I converse with them as freely as if I had always known them from childhood.

"In this kind of a way I got acquainted with my beau, that was; he was very attentive to me from our first meeting. If we happened to be going anywhere in company he was sure to offer me his arm-no, I am wrong again, he never offered me his arm in his life. If you go to walk with a young man here, instead of offering you his arm as the young men do up our way, he either takes your hand in his, or passes one arm around your waist; and this he does with such a provoking, careless honesty, that you cannot for your life be offended with him. Well, I had walked with my Jonathan several times in this kind of style. I confess there was something in him I could not but like-he does not lack for wit, and has a good share of common sense; his language is never studied-he always seems to speak from the heart. So when he asked what sort of a companion he would make, I very candidly answered, that I thought he would make a very agreeable one. 'I think just so of you,' said he, 'and it shall not be my fault,' he continued, 'if we are not companions for life.' 'We shall surely make a bargain,' said he, after sitting silent a few moments, 'so we'll bundle tonight.' 'Bundle what?' I asked. 'We will bundle together,' said he; 'you surely know what I mean.' 'I know that our farmers bundle wheat, cornstalks and hay; do you mean that you want me to help you bundle any of these?' inquired I. 'I mean that I want you to stay with me tonight!'

" 'It is the custom in this place, when a man stays with a girl, if it is warm weather, for them to throw themselves on the bed, outside the bed clothes; if the weather is cold, they crawl under the clothes, then if they have anything to say, they say it-when they get tired of talking they go to sleep; this is what we call bundling-now what do you call it in your part of the world?' 'We have no such works,' answered I; 'not amongst respectable people, nor do I think that any people would, that either thought themselves respectable, or wished to be thought so.'

" 'Don't be too severe upon us. Miss-, I have always observed that those who make believe so much modesty, have in reality but little. I always act as I feel, and speak as I think. I wish you to do the same, but have none of your make-believes with me-you smile-you begin to think you have been a little too scrupulous-you have no objection to bundling now, Have you?' 'Indeed I have.' 'I am not to be trifled with; so, if you refuse, I have done with you forever.' 'Then be done as quick as you please, for I'll not bundle with you nor with any other man.' 'Then farewell, proud girl,' said he. 'Farewell, honest man,' said I, and off he went, sure enough.

"I have since made inquiries about bundling, and find that it is really the custom here, and that they think no more harm of it, than we do our way of a young couple sitting up together. I have known an instance, since I have been here, of a girl's taking her sweetheart to a neighbor's house and asking for a bed or two to lodge in, or rather to bundle in. They had company at her father's, so that their beds were occupied; she thought no harm of it. She and her family are respectable.

"Grandmother says bundling was a very common thing in our part of the country, in old times-."

"Grandmother" and her memories of youth in the State of Maine-a convenient transition to our final classification of direct testimony on bundling in eighteenth century America; the recollection of old people.

Age is frequently defensive, especially when contrasting former and current customs; and it is natural, therefore, that Stiles, in canvassing the opinions of octogenarians about the time of the Civil War, should find general agreement on the harmlessness and practicality of bundling. The situation then must have been a rather amusing reversal of the modern debate between age and youth, with the old folks berating the Victorians in almost the same terms we youngsters have used, denouncing their disapproval of simple honesty in sexual relations.

How familiar they sound, these answers to Stiles' probably hesitant queries!-"no more mischief was done than there is nowadays," "quite competent to take care of herself," "the abuse of chastity was no more frequent than it is now," and so on. Occasionally the venerable witness would grow excited. "In my younger days I was on the bed with as many as five or six young women, but I thank God, that in all my long life I have never had carnal knowledge of any but my lawfully wedded wives." Perhaps the classic answer was made to a curious and slightly mocking grandson. "What is the use of sitting up all night and burning out fuel 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?"

We should be thankful they lived long enough to tell their stories, these grand old bundling veterans. Their words have survived every censorship to reach our more sympathetic ears. Their children and their children's children were ashamed of them, tried to disclaim them, treated them like family skeletons. But we of the twentieth century are not ashamed of such ancestors. We feel akin to them. At last it is possible for bundling to be given a new hearing, for the morality of bundling to be reexamined before a pry of peers.

Before considering the moral fiber of bundling, however, let's listen to a bundling dialogue, as it might have transpired in southern New England, say, shortly before the Revolutionary War. After all, so far we have been entertaining hearsay evidence; even a vicarious experience of the real think (much as the dramatic form supplies) will make us more competent to pass judgment on the ethical questions involved.

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