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 VI

Bundling and Colonial Society

For in the case of all things which you see breathing the breath of life, either craft or courage or else speed has from the beginning of its existence protected and preserved each particular race: And there are many things which, recommended to us by their useful services, continue to exist consigned to our protection. LUCRETIUS, De Rerum Natura.

THE FIRST THING to get clearly in mind about the Colonial background is that it was a rural background. We need this orientation before we can even consider Colonial life: we must forget the modern America dominated by great cities, by urban influences. For in the eighteenth century there were no cities as we understand them today.

The U. S. Census Bureau (whose figures we shall quote from now on in this connection), in order to establish a distinction between urban and rural population in the eighteenth century, was forced to designate any community of 8,000 or over a "city." Even at that. New England and the Middle Colonies could boast in 1750 of only three cities (Boston-15,731, Philadelphia-13,400, New York-13,300). In 1750 only 3.5% of the population of the English Colonies lived in towns of 8,000 or over. And this proportion remained remarkably steady all through the century, varying only from 2.3% in 1710 to 3.3% in 1790.

Now a community of 8,000 is not today considered a great urban concentration. This book is being written in a town of about that size, and the author is thought by his friends to have buried himself in the country. But the New England of 1750, with a total population roughly equal to that of Vermont in 1930 (346,000) had only one city over 8,000-Boston. Newport did not reach that class until 1780, nor Salem until 1790. Nowhere in the Colonies at the middle of the eighteenth century, the time when bundling was at its height, was there a city as large as Rutland, Vermont, today.

These population figures have a most significant bearing on bundling. It has been said that bundling was essentially a rural custom. Ultimately the inhabitants of the larger towns came to frown upon bundling. But these fashionable "city-folk" were, all through the era of bundling, a hopeless minority. In 1750 some 640,000 people were living in New England and the Middle Colonies (the bundling region); of these only about 40,000 were subject to such urban influences of the three towns of 8,000 or over could supply.

In this pre-Industrial Revolution environment, then, this America of farms and small villages, the rural character of bundling was by no means a limitation-it was practically a proof of universality.

The age of bundling was, thus, a period in which agriculture predominated. Nine out of ten breadwinners made their living directly from the soil. And, in the northern Colonies, nearly every farmer worked his own soil, slave labor having proved unprofitable in that section. Both political and social democracy were inevitable under such conditions. No large fortunes were built up from agriculture in the north, since, as the Census Bureau magnificently points out, the individual farmer "was unable to accumulate wealth by utilizing systematically the services of others." Agriculture was largely of the self-sufficient type throughout the New England and Middle Colonies, in contrast to the already evident southern system of concentration on single crops, such as rice and tobacco. Sheep raising was general in New England, while Pennsylvania led in the production of wheat.

So long as they remained tied to the mother country the American Colonies labored under the restrictions of the mercantile system, which guided British economic policy. They were not allowed to develop manufactures of their own, for fear of competition with English industry. Not until the Revolution destroyed these paternalistic restraints did manufacturing really get under way in the Colonies. During most of the eighteenth century American industry was limited to small neighborhood activities and hand trades. An exception may be made of shipbuilding, and, to a less degree, of iron, paper, and glass.

Another feature of Colonial life which contributed to the maintenance of bundling was its isolation. Transportation and communication before the Revolution-aside from ocean traffic-were scarcely less primitive than in medieval Europe. Save for highway networks surrounding the cities (Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) and routes along the great river valleys (the Connecticut, Merrimac, Hudson, etc.), roads in the modern sense did not exist. Since few people could afford carriages or wagons, there was no general demand, as there is now, for better roads; bridle paths and blazed trails through the wilderness apparently satisfied Colonial citizens in this era before the appearance of hard-surface propaganda and the cement lobby. Bridges were extremely rare-even sizable streams had to be forded. And even the more pretentious post roads were frequently in such terrible shape that highway conditions filled many pages in the journals of foreign visitors.

The stagecoach, under these circumstances, developed but slowly as a popular mode of travel. It was hardly known before the middle of the century, and even by the end of the Revolution the journey by stage was far from rapid, comfortable, or even safe. Samuel Breck describes the facilities between New York and Boston in 1787. "In those days there were two ways of getting to Boston: one way by a clumsy stage that travels about 40 miles a day, with the same horses the whole day; so that rising at 3 or 4 o'clock and prolonging the day's ride into the flight, one made out to reach Boston in six days; the other route was by packet-sloop...." The "clumsy stage" was an open wagon, with four benches, seating twelve persons.

It is little wonder that travel by water was vastly more important in the eighteenth century than it is now. The navigable rivers served not only to transport men and goods; ideas, manners, ways of speech followed along their banks. We have already seen how bundling spread up the Hudson Valley and the Connecticut Valley. The ocean was, of course, of greater value than the inland waterways. Shipping was the one Colonial industry that prospered on a large scale. Only in the thriving port towns did an influential commercial class arise-only there was wealth accumulated. This maritime success not only sharpened the economic distinctions between town and country life, it resulted in creating along the seaboard a society and a culture which had more in common with foreign countries than with the American hinterland. When Boston was literally nearer to Nova Scoria (by traveling-time) than to a village in the Berkshires, when Bostonians would consider with equal apprehension a trip to Europe and a trip to Vermont, clearly cleavage between urban and rural life in the Colonies was inevitable. If the larger towns came to deride bundling, near the end of the century, the criticism was merely a symptom of their general condescension towards back-country customs. It was no isolated phenomenon. When in one year "no less than forty-four vessels were sent from the single town of Boston to the northwest of America, to India, and to China"; when better than forty ships a year cleared from Salem for the Pacific and the East Indies; surely the fashionable society of these world ports could feel justified in patronizing their country cousins.

This rapid sketch of the economic background of New England and the Middle Colonies in the eighteenth century has been introduced merely to describe the theater in which the bundling play was enacted. Even such a fragmentary outline may help to clarify the Colonial scene, may make bundling more readily comprehensible. It remains to set the stage-to bring bundling forward in stereoscopic style, to give a three-dimensional reality by combining images of its immediate domestic background.

Leaving the seaboard cities, let us follow one of those rough, narrow valley roads back into the heart of the bundling country, to a typical small village, the center of economic and social life for ninety-seven percent of the Colonists. This village, with its surrounding farms, may be anywhere in New England, New York, or Pennsylvania. Allowing for minor local variations in architecture, dress and speech, the scene here, multiplied hundreds of times, becomes the panorama of life in the northern Colonies in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Here, first, is the village green. Modern town planners tell us that, for effective, appropriate, and gracious arrangement of structures and landscaping, the Colonial green has never been surpassed. Today we are making belated but sincere efforts to break down the garish clutter of nineteenth century cities into something approaching the simple charm and utility of these village groupings.

About the ample, tree-shaded green itself, which combines the functions of common pasture, parade-ground, and sheer open space, are gathered the community buildings and a good share of the dwellings. The church, of course, is conspicuous, properly representing the prominence of religion in village life. Yet the church does not dwarf or overawe the other structures, as in a French cathedral town-its spire rises above the house tops, but only to a reasonable extent. For the church is a part, if a leading part, of local democracy. The town hall frequently sends its tower almost as high above the trees. The school, the blacksmith shop, the tavern fill in the picture.

Especially the tavern. This long rambling building, with its faded symbolic signboard, balances the church across the green. The Colonists divide their time between the two, if we are to believe the lively observations of the Hessian General Riedesel. "The New Englanders all want to be politicians, and love, therefore, the taverns and the grog-bowl, behind the latter of which they transact business, drinking from morning till night. They are extremely inquisitive; credulous, and zealous to madness for liberty...."

The village houses are inviting-well-proportioned and neat, their substantial dignity lightened by flower gardens brighter than any since planted in this soil-but our search for the typical abode of bundling leads us to a hill a mile or so from town, to a farmhouse whose southern windows command long stretches of the valley in both directions.

Colonial houses were, in the first place, rectangular frame structures surrounding a great central chimney which provided two, three, or even more fireplaces, heating as many rooms. One floor, divided into two rooms, and an unfinished loft under the steeply pitched roof-in general the original plan was as simple as that. When the family grew larger, and improvements could be afforded, extra space was provided by altering the basic plan in several ways. A shed might be built on the back. As this addition became incorporated in new houses, and the roof line carried down over it almost to the ground, the "salt box" type was evolved. Several things might be done to the main structure. The roof could be lifted, to provide a full second-story; it might be pierced by dormers to expand the sleeping-quarters in the loft; it might be pushed up into the gambrel or hip-roof style, serving a similar purpose; or combinations of these changes might be devised. By the time this transition had been completely carried through, and the central chimney discarded for end chimneys supplying from four to eight fireplaces, the evolution from Colonial to Georgian was well on its way. The house we are studying now, however, was built probably in the 1730's, and retains the single massive chimney, though sheds have been added, and dormers have turned the loft space into genuine bedrooms.

The ground floor has three rooms-a small bed room, a parlor, and a kitchen. This latter room is the largest and most important in the house; the family's activities and interests all center here, about the enormous fireplace. Here meals are prepared and eaten; here household industry, such as spinning, goes on; here company is entertained and the members of the family read, talk, play games, or "just set"; here, even, the younger children sleep. The "one-room apartment" is a native American institution!

Probably no more intimate, congenial, attractive setting for family life than the Colonial kitchen has been developed. The heat and warmth of the giant hearth fill the apartment. The furniture, though scant and simple, is ingeniously appropriate, and excellently constructed- the great high-backed settles, the long trestle tables, the corner cupboards and wide shelves, the slat-back chairs, the odd chests and stools-all these mostly of pine, are not only strong and sensible, they show the hand of genuine craftsmen. Real workmen, too, have set the great ceiling beams, have laid the wide oak planks for the floor, have fitted the lovely pine paneling of the walls.

The kitchen is not only warm and livable; it is full of color. Against the varied richness of natural wood tints, the deep red of fireplace bricks is striking contrast. And, setting off the fireplace itself, are brass kettles, copper pans, pewter ware of all sorts. The lighting is effective day or night, through cleanly-curtained small-paned windows, or from naming logs and homemade candles. And all day long the air is filled with the savor of cooking-baking or roasting or stewing.

Which reminds us that no one can understand these Colonial men and women without some notion of their eating and drinking. At noon the family makes a brave sight, with father mother and five children attacking a dinner calculated to make even a New England farm meal today seem a cafeteria snack by comparison. The groaning table was, of course, typical of the century in England as well, but to the old-country staples such as beef, pork, veal, lamb, and chicken, this group can add many frontier novelties-abundant venison and turkey, for instance. Not only are vegetables fresh and plentiful, but the list is a longer and more exciting one. Merely to mention succotash opens up vistas of what the new world meant in terms of eating. The several meats and numerous vegetables will rapidly disappear from the plates we are watching, to be succeeded by pudding or pastry or both. The Yankee race-that joyless, ascetic folk!-really gave to the world a new conception of desserts; to this day New Englanders will fight at the drop of a hat when the pie peculiar to their section is spoken of slightingly. And as for pickles and preserves, there is no space here to begin the subject. These people brought with them from Europe all the accumulated lore of herbs and spices which centuries of the cooking art had developed; they adapted it to an unprecedented wealth of raw materials. The formula applies to the whole range of preparing food-eighteenth century appetites plus traditional skill plus rich supplies. In short, our ancestors ate "real well."

We may think we drink well today. Probably a four teen year old youngster could put away more cider during haying in the 1750's than you or I could handle in a month. Mugs of cider stand beside almost every plate on the table described above, and they are frequently refilled. Contemporary accounts do not always refer to if the drink as "hard cider," but, then, if you are a cider-lover, you seldom think of it as hard. Cider is, to the family group we are visiting, as commonplace as wine to the Parisian bourgeoisie.

Yet cider never replaced beer, the Elizabethan love of which was transported intact to these shores-it merely supplemented that heartening beverage. Although the Pilgrims were surprised to find they could drink New England water "pretty well," they did not stay many months without ale, and ale held its own through two centuries of Colonial life.

If visitors arrive this evening the head of the family will treat them to more ardent liquors than those we have mentioned. Perhaps flip will be called for, a virile concoction built around rum, molasses, and beer. Into a generous mug of the mixture you plunged a red-hot loggerhead, or flip-iron. Rum was a Colonial staple, since the West Indies trade made it popular and cheap. Punches without number were created from this essential, and the punchbowl was an indispensable item in Colonial housekeeping.

But the various temptations of the kitchen must not detain us in that room longer. For we sought out this home to further our study of bundling, and we have yet to see a bedroom. A narrow, enclosed stairway, built around the central chimney, leads to the second floor, and a typical sleeping room opens on our right.

It is rather bare. A high, curtained bed occupies considerable space; near the window is a simple bureau, or chest of drawers, with a small mirror above it. There are one or two prim, Windsor chairs, and a few braided rugs on the floor. The bed itself is of the corded type, with slender unadorned posts-for this is not a luxurious town house and country beds are seldom carved-but the muslin bed-curtains are nicely laundered. The walls are not papered but the boards have been painted a soft, pleasing tint.

While here, in the very sanction of bundling, we might glance into the closet to see if we find there any of those bundling costumes, of which we have heard so much. Ten to one we shall be disappointed. For the special bundling robe, with drawstrings and other ingenious impediments, was an eccentric rarity, and almost surely of a much later period. Stiles can trace the garment back no farther than "probably about 1827" on Cape Cod. If it had been common during the Classic Period of bundling it would certainly have been attacked in the satires which appeared at the end of the century.

Of Colonial clothing in general much has been written and little is remembered by the average person. Most people have only a vague impression that our ancestors wore heavy, drab clothes, and wore them a long time. Charles Andrews, in his COLONIAL FOLKWAYS, says, "The years from 1740 to 1765 represent in the history of this country the highest point reached in richness of costume, variety of color, peculiarities of decoration, and excess of frills and furbelows on the part of both sexes." The steady thunder of ministerial rage against fashion, the seemingly exaggerated fears of the Puritan clergy about the dangers of fine raiment-there was sound basis for all this, a sounder basis than for the postwar hysteria over short skirts. For English and French fashions were quickly and precisely copied throughout the Colonies. And, to note but one aspect of the mode, in the eighteenth century a low neck was a low neck (see contemporary portraits).

In truth, if we look at the dress of the fashionable lady who lived a gay life in the seaboard cities, we will be struck with the amazing variety of her styles, fabrics and colors. This attractive creature was as highly decorated as a bird of paradise. The poorer and more simple country lass of the small, isolated village and the remote farm neither had the means nor the time to embellish her person with the gorgeous raiment and hair dress that her city cousin had copied from the ladies of European courts.

So much for the typical bundling home and its typical family. We have been intent here, perhaps, mainly upon the bright side of the picture; we have neglected the hardships and the inconveniences and the shortcomings of those times. But the omissions may be permitted under the circumstances, for the aim was to bring out the healthy, vital, colorful realities of an era which has too often been discussed as a rigid, gloomy, savorless phase of our national past. Nor would it be fair to leave with the reader an impression so one-sided as the previous chapter, with its morbid overtones, might easily create. There was fanaticism in those days; there was sensuality and hypocrisy and vulgarity. But there was a great deal to live for, and the majority of the people loved life as they found it.

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