June 05, 2011

Sex Lives of the Puritans, Part 2: Bundling

My last post was about courting tubes, which unwed couples used to communicate with each other while in the same room as their families. The New England Puritans wanted young couples to be compatible before they got married - but didn't want them to have sex.

These two somewhat contradictory cultural impulses culminated in a practice known as bundling.

Courting tubes are kind of cute, like kids using cans on a string to play telephone, but bundling is just bizarre to me! It originated among the Puritans, and seems to have continued in parts of New England until the early 19th century. I believe it may still happen among the Amish in Pennsylvania.

What was bundling? Well, if a young couple was getting along well and marriage seemed likely, their families encouraged them to spend a night together in the same bed. So far, so good. I think many modern Americans would agree sleeping together can determine compatibility.

But would we agree it should be done while tied up in giant sacks? Probably not.

To prevent the young lovers from actually making love, their families would tie them up in large cloth bags before putting them in bed. Only their heads would be outside the sacks, so they could talk with each other.

To further prevent physical contact, sometimes a board would be placed between the man and woman. Some beds were even built with grooves in their headboards to accommodate a bundling board. There must have been a lot of bundling going on if special beds were being made!

Strangely, despite all their precautions, the New England Puritans and their descendants still experienced a high rate of pre-marital births. Researchers have found that while less than 10% of New England brides were pregnant at their wedding in the 17th century, this number climbed to a whopping 40% in the 18th century.

Were the sacks tied too loosely? Did the boards have holes in them? Possibly, but I think it also could be that the definition of bundling was pretty flexible.

It appears that strict families used boards and sacks, but some families didn't use either. They would simply allow the youngsters to lie together in bed with their clothes on. And it's pretty easy for clothes to come off…

Dana Doten's 1938 book The Art of Bundling contains this little story, which first appeared in the 1796 Vermont Almanac. I think it sums up the whole situation nicely.

An Indian warrior who supported the American troops in the Revolution was staying at a large house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One night he went upstairs and came upon the young lady of the house bundling with her beau.

In embarrassment the Indian tried to leave the room, but the beau asked him to stay. "We're not behaving inappropriately", he said. "It is just as easy for us to be good here as anyplace else!"

"Yes", said the Indian, "but it is much easier to be wicked."

A couple of this blog's readers commented and emailed me about bundling after my last post - great minds think alike!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

an instance of this can be seen in Witness starring Harrison Ford.

Peter M. said...

Thanks for the comment! I've never seen Witness, so thanks for the heads up!