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.
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.
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?).
Some maidens say, if through the nation,
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."
©2006 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com.
photo courtesy Dean Sabatino
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.|