J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

“I did not go to bundle with her”

In 1777, Thomas Anburey was a young officer in Gen. John Burgoyne’s army thrusting down into the U.S. of A. from Canada. Then Anburey was a prisoner of war, being marched to Boston. Twelve years later, he published his observations on that experience in the form of a series of letters home.

Here’s Anburey writing about a surprising night he spent just outside Boston:

The night before we came to this town, 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: though they have remarkable good feather beds, and are extremely neat and clean, still I preferred my hard mattrass, 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 to rest; there being only two beds in the house, I enquired 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 16, or 17, archly replied, “No, Father, 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 to 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 blessed with you, but it was too vast a sacrifice, when you was to be victim!—Suppose how great the test of virtue must be, or how cold the American constitution, when this unaccountable custom is in hospitable repute, and perpetual practice.
As social historians have pointed out, in the eighteenth century about a third of all first-time brides in New England gave birth within seven months of marriage. So the American constitution wasn’t really that cold after all.


Anonymous said...

While this "bundling" may have occurred, I think we should be skeptical of the supposedly overt sexuality and British-vs.-American virtuosity spin placed upon it by its obviously biased source.

pilgrimchick said...

What an interesting snapshot of American colonial culture. I wonder how this grew out of 17th century culture, and how the differences between New England and more southern colonies may have manifested themselves--perhaps there is a dissertation there.

J. L. Bell said...

I think it’s fascinating that while we look at bundling as close to sex, Anburey interpreted the habit of unmarried couples sleeping together to mean that Americans were unsexualized. And that his expected inability to stop himself from ravishing a teenaged girl if he had to spend the night with her was a sign of his superiority.

As for differences between New England and other colonies, the Plain Peoples of Pennsylvania reportedly kept up the habit of bundling into the 20th century. And the future King Louis-Philippe of France encountered something like it in 1797 in a crowded cabin north of Nashville. So it may have been a colonial/frontier habit rather than a New England one.