History of Single Life

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In case you haven’t heard about the latest thing in retro hipness, premarital celibacy is back. According to Denny Pattyn, founder of that Silver Ring Thing — the organization that has all the cool girls dedicating their hymens to Jesus and dancing creepily with their fathers — premarital sex was the lame-ass invention of the 1960s, when people listened to Janis Joplin instead of Lindsay Lohan and drank Southern Comfort instead of milk. Back when this was a Christian nation like the Founding Fathers intended, people stuck to fun and wholesome courting activities like tent revivals and exterminating those accursed passenger pigeons.
    Well, actually, quite the opposite. Eighteenth-century revivalist preachers such as Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts, got just as worked up as their spirtual descendants over the immoral youths who dared to take co-ed wagon rides or go to barn dances. What really got the goats of guys like Edwards, though, were those infernal bundlers.


    Before I explain what bundling was, you first have to remember that life was hard on the frontier. Nights were cold, beds were in short supply, and settlements were far apart. Therefore, if a young man came a-calling, instead of his belle’s parents sending him home (through woods crawling with Native Americans eager to renegotiate unfavorable real estate deals with a hatchet or knife); requiring the couple to stay up all night and waste the family’s entire supply of firewood; or forcing the poor guy to sleep in the barn and die of hypothermia, they would tuck the young couple into bed together. Some sources insist the lovers were wrapped up like mummies and separated by a "bundling board" (try finding one of those on Antiques Roadshow). Others held that couples would commonly strip to the waist and climb into bed together, there to do what they pleased, separated by a sheet or even less. The results were predictable. In the pious 1600s, only one out of ten New England women had a child before eight months of marriage, but by the mid-1700s, the number had quadrupled to four out of ten. So much for native-born American virtue.
    The source of this particular custom is lost in the mists of history. While some writers maintain that it was Dutch immigrants in Hudson River Valley who first introduced bundling (or "queesting," as it was known there) to America, others say that the custom was present from the time of the first colonies in New England.

Sleeping one person to a bed is a relatively modern convenience.

Writing in 1794 Connecticut, the Rev. Samuel Peters insisted that bundling was as old as Plymouth Rock. In any case, sleeping one person to a bed is a relatively modern convenience, and ribald humor about bed-sharing, the forerunner of "farmer’s daughter" jokes, figures in medieval and early-modern literature from England to Italy (check out Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale). Furthermore, fairly liberal attitudes toward sex — and even pregnancy — during courtship had been common since the Middle Ages, at least among the lower classes. Back then, a promise to marry was tantamount to marriage itself (after all, if you have twenty acres to plow, do you really want to marry a woman who can’t have kids?).
    Just because bundling was widespread, though, doesn’t mean it wasn’t controversial. Readers of the popular magazines of the late 1700s could read the eighteenth-century version of The Colbert Report: social critique in the form of really bad poetry. For instance:

Some maidens say, if through the nation,
Bundling should quite go out of fashion,
Courtship would lose its sweets; and they
Could have no fun till wedding day.
. . . .
But she is modest, also chaste,
While only bare from neck to waist,
And he of boasted freedom sings,
Of all above her apron strings.
And where such freedoms great are shared,
And further freedoms feebly bar’d,
I leave for others to relate,
How long she’ll keep her virgin state.

    Still, the outcome tended to be more good than bad. As Alexis de Toqueville said in Democracy in America, his famous account of his 1831 tour through the new nation, "[N]o American woman falls into the toils of matrimony as into a snare held out to her simplicity and ignorance. She has been taught beforehand what is expected of her and voluntarily and freely enters upon this engagement."
    Though bundling grew less common as American prosperity enabled courtship to move from the bundling-bed to the living-room sofa, it persisted in rural areas well into the nineteenth century, and up to relatively recent times amongst the Amish. In 1846, a fifty-six-year-old wife said of the customs of courting couples in her part of rural New York State, "they sit in a room, alone, and blow out the candle, and having a bed in the room is no killing matter."
    Even at the turn of the century, premarital sex was a lot more common than moralists would have us believe. Three-quarters of the generation of men born in the 1910s — and one-third of the women — reported having sex before marriage. (For the World War II generation, it was eight out of ten and three out of ten, respectively.)
    Much has changed since Jonathan Edwards threatened premarital bundlers with eternal damnation back in 1733, but much remains the same. Although Puritan Northampton is now known as the lesbian capital of America (where it’s easier to grab some fuzzy handcuffs at Pride and Joy than to find a bundling board), bundling remains an apt expression of America’s sexual split personality. Our particular obsession with the subject, coupled with our Britney Spearsesque pretensions of innocence, can be compared to a young couple lying close together, swaddled in their bedclothes but in reality "not long to keep their virgin state." Despite all the arguments against it, premarital sex is nothing new, and those modern advocates of a return to "family values" would do well to remember that our Pilgrim Fathers did enjoy, now and again, a good bundle with our Pilgrim Mothers.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and
photo courtesy Dean Sabatino
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.