To Bundle or to Tarry
Bundling. “A man and a woman lying on the same bed with their clothes on; an expedient practiced in America on a scarcity of beds, where, on such occasions, husbands and parents frequently permitted travelers to bundle with their wives and daughters.”—grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
Bundle, v.i. “To sleep on the same bed without undressing; applied to the custom of a man and woman, especially lovers, thus sleeping.”— Webster, 1864
Bundle, v.n. “To sleep together with the clothes on.”— Worcester, 1864
Bundling, as may be seen from the above quoted definitions, was practiced in two forms: first, between strangers, as a simple domestic makeshift arrangement, often arising from the necessities of a new country, and by no means peculiar to America; and, secondly, between lovers, who shared the same couch, with the mutual understanding that innocent endearments should not be exceeded. It was, however, in either case, a custom of convenience. . . .
Its comparatively innocent and harmless character has, however, been fearfully distorted and maligned by irresponsible satirists, and prejudiced historians. Take, for example, the following passage from Knickerbocker's
1 History of New York, wherein he pretends to describe “the curious device among these sturdy barbarians [the Connecticut colonists], to keep up a harmony of interests, and promote population. * * * 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— a superstitious rite observed by the young people of both sexes, with which they usually terminated their festivities, and which was kept up with religious strictness by the more bigoted and vulgar part of the community. This ceremony was likewise, 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. Thus early did this cunning and ingenious people display a shrewdness at making a bargain, which has ever since
1 By Washington Irving, p. 211. 4th Am. edition.
distinguished them, and a strict adherence to the good old vulgar maxim about `buying a pig in a poke.'
“To this sagacious custom, therefore, do I chiefly attribute the unparalleled increase of the Yanokie or 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 whoreson 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.”
Hear, also, that learned, but audacious and unscrupulous divine, the Rev. Samuel Peters, who thus discourseth at length upon the custom of bundling in Connecticut, and other parts of New England. After admitting that “the women of Connecticut are strictly virtuous, and to be compared to the prude rather than the European polite lady,” he says:
“Notwithstanding the modesty of the females is such that it would be accounted the greatest rudeness for a gentleman to speak before a lady of a garter, knee, or leg, yet it is thought but a piece of civility to ask her to bundle; a custom as old as the first settlement in 1634. It is certainly innocent, virtuous and prudent, or the puritans would not have permitted it to prevail among their offspring, for whom in general they would suffer crucifixion. Children brought up with the chastest ideas, with so much religion as to believe that the omniscient God sees them in the dark, and that angels guard them when absent from their parents, will not, nay, cannot, act a wicked thing. People who are influenced more by lust, than a serious faith in God, who is too pure to behold iniquity with approbation, ought never to bundle. If any man, thus a stranger to the love of virtue, of God, and the Christian religion, should bundle with a young lady in New England, and behave himself unseemly towards her, he must first melt her into passion, and expel heaven, death, and hell, from her mind. . . . I am no advocate for temptation; yet must say, that bundling has prevailed 160 years in New England, and, I verily believe, with ten times more chastity than the sitting on a sofa. I had daughters, and speak from near forty years' experience. Bundling takes place only in cold seasons of the year—the sofa in summer is more dangerous than the bed in winter. 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 men whatever, and introduced a sofa to render courtship more palatable and Turkish, whatever it was owing to, whether to the sofa, or any uncommon excess of the feu d'esprit, there went abroad a report that this raffinage produced more natural consequences than all the bundling among the boors with their rurales pedantes, through every village in New England besides. . . .
Badinage, ridicule and misrepresentation aside. . . , there can be no reasonable doubt that bundling did prevail to a very great extent in the New England colonies from a very early date. It is equally evident that it was originally confined almost entirely to the lower classes of the community, or to those whose limited means compelled them to economize strictly in their expenditure of firewood and candlelight. Many, perhaps the majority, of the dwellings of the early settlers, consisted of but one room, in which the whole family lived and slept. Yet their innocent and generous hospitality forbade that the stranger, or the friend whom night overtook on their threshold, should be turned shelterless and couchless away, so long as they could offer him even half of a bed. As an example of this we may cite the case of Lieut. Anbury, 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 the indelicate custom they call bundling. Though they have remarkable good feather beds, and are extremely neat and clean, still I preferred my hard mattress, as being accustomed to it; this evening, however, owing to the badness of the roads, and the weakness of my mare, my servant had not arrived with my baggage at the time for retiring for rest. 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,' says she, `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, la! Mr. Ensign, you won't be the first man our Jemima has bundled with, will it Jemima?' when 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' (the name they give to Englishmen). In this dilemma what could I do? The smiling invitation of pretty Jemima—the eye, the lip, the—lord ha' mercy, where am I going to? But wherever I may be going now, I did not go to bundle with her—in the same room with her father and mother, my kind host and hostess too! I thought of that—i thought of more besides—to struggle with the passions of nature; to clasp Jemima in my arms—to—do what? you'll ask—why, to do—nothing! for if amid all these temptations, the lovely Jemima had melted into kindness, she had been an outcast from the world—treated with contempt, abused by violence, and left perhaps to perish! No, Jemima; I could have endured all this to have been blest with you, but it was too vast a sacrifice, when you were to be the victim! Suppose how great the test of virtue must be, or how cold the American constitution, when this unaccountable custom is in
2 hospitable repute, and perpetual practice.”
Again, in a subsequent letter, the Lieutenant, after describing a New England sleighing frolic, says: “In England this would be esteemed extremely imprudent, and attended with dangerous consequences; but, after what I have related respecting bundling, I need not say, in how innocent a view this is looked upon. Apropos, as to that custom, along the sea coast, by a continual intercourse among Europeans, it is in some measure abolished; but they still retain one something similar, which is termed tarrying. When a young man is enamored of a woman, and wishes to marry her, he proposes the affair to her parents (without whose consent no marriage, in this colony, can take place); if they have no objections, he is allowed to tarry with her one night, in order to make his court. At the usual time the old couple retire to bed, leaving the young ones to settle matters as they can, who having sat up as long as they think proper, get into bed together also, but without putting off their under garments, to prevent scandal. If the parties agree, it is all very well, the banns are published, and they married without delay; if not, they part, and possibly never see each other again, unless, which is an accident that seldom happens, the forsaken fair proves pregnant, in which case the man, unless he absconds, is obliged to marry her, on
3 pain of excommunication.”
The word tarry, in the sense of to stop or to stay, was more used by our ancestors than by the present generation; yet we think that Lieut. Anbury was mistaken in his idea that the tarrying was but for a single night. It is true that marriages were early, and probably the courtships were short, but we all know enough of New England sparking to know that a single night was cutting it rather short; and yet it is easy to see how Anbury should get his erroneous idea. True, if the lover was so unlucky as to get his final dismissal the first night, there was an end of the matter, and well might they fail to meet again; but, in that case, it is not likely that the favors of which he could boast would be such as to seriously affect the reputation of the girl with whom he tarried. The fact that in the custom of tarrying, the parties also bundled, does not authorize the synonymous use of the two words, which have nothing in common. For, doubtless many young man tarried with their sweethearts, who did not bundle with them. 2 Travels through the Interior Parts of America; in a Series of Letters (by an officer; a new edition, London, 1781, 8vo), vol. II, pp. 37–40. 3 Anbury's Travels, pp. 87, 88.