I’ve always wondered about bundling. Have you? Did parents really allow their daughters to bed down with the neighbor boy for the night, with only a board, or a sack between them?The question of the bundling board is interesting in the same way that the entire matter of the sleeping habits of the 18th and 19th centuries are also interesting. Speculation about Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality, which stemmed from the tone of letters he wrote to male friends and the fact that he shared a bed with a man, quickly fades in significance when we learn that bed sharing among men and even between unmarried men and women (in the case of bundling) was a common (or at least not unheard of) practice in the 19th century and earlier, and that the language of friendship between men was quite different in Lincoln’s day than in our own. We can’t easily apply our own perceptions to the behaviors and language of distant historical periods.
Here’s a (seemingly) culturally internal Pennsylvania Dutch take on bundling: Bundling. Unfortunately it is displayed in rather unreadable colors.
Wikipedia seems helpful: Wikepedia: Bundling Board.
A source linked from Wikipedia is also interesting: More Bundling Board material
In colonial America pregnancy was about as likely to precede marriage as to follow it, and it would appear that there was no great scandal in pregnancy as long as marriage did indeed follow. Following the publication of Banns (engagement) bundling was, it seems, thought a perfectly reasonable way for a young man and woman to spend the night.
The use of a bundling board, I would venture to speculate, was in no small part a function of the cost of energy and heating, together with the bio-social realities of a pre-birthcontrol world in which the beginning of sexual activity led fairly directly to marriage, and for women to a lifetime of child bearing, with a birth every 2 to 3 years for 25 or more years.
Bundling boards inserted themselves into this economy of energy costs, cold nights, adolescent sexuality and fecundity, and hard farm labor. They offered perhaps, and at most, a way to create a mild delay in the onset of sexual activity and pregnancy and perhaps an opportunity to experience the other sex ever so slightly as an individual person prior to beginning a life time of hard labor, while achieving night-time warmth in cold unheated lodgings. Bundling boards surely weren’t about only one thing, but rather represented a confluence of energetic, cultural, sexual and economic realities.
It would be fascinating to trace how changes in material culture, home size, family size, the position of women, the economics of the farm economy, changes in agronomy and land ecology, energy use, and other factors paralleled the growth of religious opposition to bundling and bundling’s gradual dying out as a common or normative courting practice. When, why and how did bundling, which seemed perfectly normal and reasonable to so many, become the object of religious opposition? When did it come to be looked down on as a lower class custom?
As something of a cultural materialist (I believe that culture is pretty much an artifact of material and economic realities), I find such questions fascinating. However you could take a very different perspective and still find much of interest in the changing attitudes toward night-time bundling as a form of courtship and adolescent development.
These interests of mine branch out into the larger question of how, 2, 3 and 4 centuries ago, average people slept (it was cold!), what it was like a night (it was dark!), whom they shared their beds and blankets with (the whole family!). When we attempt to reconstruct the history of sleeping, we’re suddenly talking about a third to half of all of human history. Things look different there. Now granted, a lot less was happening, history wise, at night, but still, most of history as we study it is the history of what important people did during daylight hours. More recently of course historians have focussed on what common people did, but still during daylight hours. But has anyone really done a good analysis of the night?
The history of sleep and of the night, the history of humankind gathered around the campfire, nodding off to sleep, curling up with fellow tribe members and family members, keeping an ear cocked for a sound outside the circle of light, or outside the cabin door, gathered under a few precious blankets… all of this is a rich issue, and of course very difficult to reconstruct in any sort of detail. Yet I can’t help thinking that a better understanding of the culture of the night would be very illuminating concerning the history of the daytime hours. Maybe I’ll make it a resolution for 2006 to educate myself a little about the history of the night.
Anyone know a good book about the history of the night? Leave a comment below!
Additional Reflections on Bundling
Reflecting on the meaning and use of bundling boards, if families tended to sleep in one bed, or in a single room in adjoining beds, there would of course be substantially less privacy. Our contemporary ideas of privacy just don’t apply very well. So, as a young man, to sleep in your engaged fiance’s bed was not necessarily to be alone with her. You would be sleeping with her parents too. (Consider also that her parents were not 25 to 35 years older than you, but more likely 15 to 25 years older than you. It carries a different vibe.)
Then again, because the sense of privacy of the Puritans was very different from our own, the presence of a young woman’s parents perhaps provided less of a barrier to sex than it might for us. After all, normally, married sex presumably took place in the same room, and even same bed, that was occupied by other family members. Even with our modern sense of privacy, anyone who has young children knows that they can sleep very deeply indeed. This is not difficult to imagine, and imposing modern ideas of propriety or abuse on 3 century old cultural realities is unhelpful.
One of the few portrayals of sleeping and sex from more than 2 centuries ago that I’ve seen in film comes in “Black Robe” in which a black robed priest sleeps in an Indian teepee and awakens in the middle of the night to witness sex between a native man and woman. I recall that his reaction was to be somewhat taken aback (as if perhaps he had never seen this?) but there would probably be nothing unfamiliar in the sexual scene to him except perhaps that the couple exposed their skin to the cold (a movie convention) rather than remaining covered. Perhaps he was meant to appear shocked at the absence of the missionary position as well. But in reality I wonder if there would be much shock to anyone, even a priest, in the 1600s and 1700s at the sounds of sex in the night as adults slept closely together?
I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine that for most individuals sexual activity could not have required a separate room from family members or even guests. Dwellings were small, and the darkness was cover enough, and all the cover that was available, for much of human history. People were aware of each other, and, one imagines, they ignored each other, as best they could. And, one imagines, the sounds of the night were forgotten in the day.
So also, one imagines, the bundling board and associated sleeping arrangements functioned. To some extent the parents were there, listening and aware. To some extent the couple, and the neighbor boy, were trusted. To some extent the young adults internalized values of restraint. And to some extent they felt sexual desire. So as a little extra help, the board was there between them as a reminder. But finally, because premarital sex and pregnancy were not particularly worrisome to the Puritans, so long as marriage resulted, the failure of the bundling board to keep the couple apart was no great tragedy. It didn’t have to be a perfect solution, or to work forever, but only as long as propriety and economic considerations demanded. Perhaps it was even understood that, as a contraceptive, it was bound to fail sooner, if not later. That wouldn’t matter either as long as the consequence was marriage.
So I imagine life and courtship with bundling boards. None of this is based on any substantial research, so don’t go quoting me. If you find something interesting let me know. I’m still researching these matters, and comments are appreciated.