This post originally appeared on the Dashing Duchesses blog.
Back when I was a teenager (when the dinosaurs roamed the earth) my parents would never have dreamed of allowing me to sleep over at my boyfriend’s house—even if I promised to sleep in a separate bedroom.
Our Colonial forebears saw things a bit differently. In early America, it was permissible for a courting couple to spend the night together. In the same bed, no less. This practice was called bundling.
In rural areas of Colonial America, farmsteads could be few and far between, and daylight hours were reserved for carrying out the endless chores required to survive. It was considered thrifty to do one’s courting in the evening, and when the road home was long and dark, a young man might be invited to stay over. This 18th century ditty sums up the attitude:
Since in a bed a man and maid,
May bundle and be chaste,
It does no good to burn out wood,
It is just needless waste.
In theory, the practice was innocent. The young man and woman lay in the same bed, separated by a bundling board, a piece of wood that ran down the center of the bed. Or else one of the pair might be sewn into a sleeping-bag type arrangement known as a bundling sack. This ensured—again, in theory—that the couple kept their hands to themselves.
In reality, enterprising couples found ways around these restrictions, because in the areas where the practice was common (mainly New England), up to 30% of brides may have gone to the altar already expecting.
In his History of New York, Washington Irving noted “wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats born . . . without the license of the law, or the benefit of clergy . . . a long-sided, raw-boned, hardy race of whoreson whalers, woodcutters, fishermen, and peddlers; and strapping corn-fed wenches, who by their united efforts tended marvellously toward populating those notable tracts of country . . . .”
Bundling was not confined to courting couples. In places where inns were scarce, a family might rent out bed space to bring in a few extra pennies. A traveler might be invited to spend the night with one of the family members—separated by a bundling board. Even in towns that did boast hotels, a bed might thus be shared by complete strangers.
I’ve seen this practice portrayed both on television and in the movies. The Patriot (yes, I know, it’s way more Hollywood than history) includes a scene where a courting couple is permitted to spend the night together, as long as the young man allows himself to be sewn up inside a bundling bag to keep him honest. I also recall an episode of the Young Riders where Jimmy (a.k.a. Wild Bill Hickok) meets a Mennonite girl and they’re allowed to spend the night in a bed together separated by a bundling board. I tried to find screen caps, because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want an excuse to ogle Heath Ledger or Josh Brolin? But alas, my Google-foo failed me.
The practice was probably at its height in the mid- to late 18thcentury. After that, it began to die out as Americans became more generally prosperous. No doubt such preachers as Jonathan Edwards, who railed against the practice as immoral also had their influence. In some Amish communities, however, it lasted as late as the early 20th century.
No matter what the preachers say, you have to admit the practice holds a great deal of appeal for a romance writer.