Under Puritan law, adultery was a capital crime. Although only a few adulterers were hanged, they were frequently taken to court, and even married couples sometimes found themselves facing the Salem and Ipswich Courts for suspicion of the bride being pregnant on her wedding day:
- Mathew Stanley, July 1649 “for drawing away the affections of the Daughter of John Tarbox, his wife, without libertie first obtayned of her parents–fined 50s. or to be whipped for fornication, but fine to be remitted if they marry together.”
- Danyell Kellum and his wife Mary, fined September, 1650, 20 shillings “for fornication, a child fully grown, in the opinion of the women then present, having been bom twenty-eight weeks after their marriage.”
- Job Bishop of Ipswich presented January 26, 1651, “for fornication, his wife being delivered of a child twenty weeks after their marriage.“
- John Gilman, “now of Ipswich, presented January 26, 1651, for unlawful enticing of Hanna Gross, daughter of the widow Cross, using means to draw her affections contrary to the minds of her mother.”
- Henry Cowes and wife Charity were fined 40 shillings for “fornication before marriage.”
- When Ipswich resident Sarah Roe had an affair with Joseph Leigh in 1673 while her husband was away at sea, their neighbors testified in court against them. The two were found guilty of “unlawful familiarity” and severely punished.
In the early years of the settlement, and as settlers moved west into the cold New England frontier away from the Puritan strongholds, it was not uncommon for unmarried persons to be invited to sleep in the same bed for warmth. The definition of bundling evolved and developed over time into a ritual of courtship.
“Bundling: A man and woman sleeping in the same bed, he with his small clothes, and she with her petticoats on; an expedient practised in America on a scarcity of beds, where, on such an occasion, husbands and parents frequently permitted travellers to bundle with their wives and daughters.” — Grose, Daniel: “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” Third Edition, 1811
Bundle: “To sleep on the same bed without undressing; applied to the custom of a man and woman, especially lovers, thus sleeping.” — Webster’s Dictionary, 1864.
Bundling as a part of courtship was most common in rural New England, and persisted after it had gone out of favor in the more urban areas. In Wales where bundling is said to have originated, it is known as “Caru yn y Gwely”, translated literally as “loving in the bed.” The courtship practice usually occurred in the parental home of the female participant, and despite being separated by “bundling clothes” and “bundling boards,” it occasionally resulted in a “little bundle of joy” nine months later. While less than 10% of New England brides were pregnant at their wedding in the 17th century, the number climbed to over a third in the 18th century.
Bundling was considered unsophisticated and crude by urban New Englanders, and eventually went out of style. The “Bundling Song,” or “A Reproof of those Young Country Women who Follow that Reproachful Practice, and to their Mothers for Upholding them therein” was popular in Boston during the early 19th Century. A few lines are copied below:
A bundling couple went to bed
With all their clothes from foot to head;
That the defense might seem complete
Each one was wrapped in a sheet
But oh, this bundling’s such a witch
The man of her did catch the itch,
And so provoked was the wretch
That she of his a bastard catch’d
excerpts from a publication by Henry Reed Stiles, 1871
New England...They multiplied to a degree which would be incredible to any man unacquainted with the marvellous fecundity of this growing country. This amazing increase may, indeed, be partly ascribed to a singular custom prevalent among them, commonly known by the name of bundling.
This ceremony was in those primitive times, considered as an indispensable preliminary to matrimony; their courtships commencing where ours usually finish, by which means they acquired that intimate acquaintance with each other’s good qualities before marriage, which has been pronounced by philosophers the sure basis of a happy union.
To this sagacious custom, therefore, do I chiefly attribute the unparalleled increase of the Yankee tribe; for it is a certain fact, well authenticated by court records and parish registers, that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats annually born unto the state, without the license of the law, or the benefit of clergy. Neither did the irregularity of their birth operate in the least to their disparagement. On the contrary, they grew up a long-sided, raw-boned, hardy race of whore-son whalers, wood cutters, fishermen, and peddlers; and strapping corn-fed wenches, who by their united efforts tended marvellously towards populating those notable tracts of country called Nantucket, Piscataway, and Cape Cod.”
About the year 1756, Boston, Salem, Newport, and New York, resolving to be more polite than their ancestors, forbade their daughters bundling on the bed with any young man whatever, and introduced a sofa to render courtship more palatable. In 1776, a clergyman from one of the polite towns, went into the country, and preached against the unchristian custom of young men and maidens lying together on a bed.
He was no sooner out of the church, then attacked by a shoal of good old women, with,
‘Sir, do you think we and our daughters are naughty, because we allow bundling?’
He answered, ‘You lead yourselves into temptation by it.‘ They all replied at once,
‘Sir, have you been told thus, or has experience taught it you? Your informants, sir, we conclude, are those city ladies who prefer a sofa to a bed: We advise you to alter your sermon, by substituting the word sofa for bundling, and on your return home preach it to them, for experience has told us that city folks send more children into the country without fathers or mothers to own them, than are born among us; therefore, you see, a sofa is more dangerous than a bed.’
Lieutenant Anbury was a British officer who served in America during the Revolutionary War, and whose letters preserve many sprightly and interesting pictures of the manners and customs of that period. In a letter dated at Cambridge, New England, November 20, 1777, he thus speaks:
“The night before we came to this town [Williamstown, Mass.], being quartered at a small log hut, I was convinced in how innocent a view the Americans look upon that indelicate custom they call bundling….There being only two beds in the house, I inquired which I was to sleep in, when the old woman replied, ‘Mr. Ensign,’ here I should observe to you, that the New England people are very inquisitive as to the rank you have in the army; Mr. Ensign, our Jonathan and I will sleep in this, and our Jemima and you shall sleep in that.’
“I was much astonished at such a proposal, and offered to sit up all night, when Jonathan immediately replied, ‘Oh, Mr. Ensign, you wont be the first man our Jemima has bundled with, will it Jemima?’ Little Jemima, who, by the bye, was a very pretty, black-eyed girl, of about sixteen or seventeen, archly replied, ‘No, father, not by many, but it will be with the first Britainer.'”
Indeed, all the old people with whom we have conversed on the matter, although in some cases a little unwilling to own that they had ever practiced it themselves, were unanimous in their belief that the abuse of chastity under the bundling regime was no more frequent than it is now.
One old gentleman of whom we have heard, in reply to the half reproachful, half-joking question of his grandson, whether he wasn’t ashamed, replied:
“Why, no! What is the use of sitting up all night and burning out fire and lights, when you could just as well get under kiver and keep warm; and, when you get tired, take a nap and wake up fresh, and go at it again ? Why, damn it, there wasn’t half as many bastards then as there are now!“
- Stiles, Henry Reed: “Bundling: Its Origin, Progress and Decline in America” 1871
- American Heritage, “The Secret Life of a Developing Country”
- Grose, Daniel: “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” Third Edition, 1811
- Thomas, Isaiah, “A New Bundling Song,”
- Sublime Wales, “Bundling”