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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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

“A very extraordinary method of courtship”

Last week I quoted the Rev. Samuel Peters’s comments about the New England custom of bundling, first published in London in 1781. Six years before, another minister, the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, Vicar of Greenwich, England, had reported on a similar habit in Massachusetts.

In his 1775 book Travels through the Middle Settlements in North-America, in the Years 1759 and 1760, Burnaby wrote:
Singular situations and manners will be productive of singular customs; but frequently such as upon slight examination may appear to be the effects of mere grossness of character, will, upon deeper research, be found to proceed from simplicity and innocence. A very extraordinary method of courtship, which is sometimes practised amongst the lower people of this province, and is called Tarrying, has given occasion to this reflection.

When a man is enamoured of a young 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 objection, they allow him to tarry with her one night, in order to make his court to her.

At their usual time the old couple retire to bed, leaving the young ones to settle matters as they can; who, after having sate up as long as they think proper, get into bed together also, but without pulling off their undergarments, in order to prevent scandal. If the parties agree, it is all very well; the banns are published, and they are 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-one prove pregnant, and then the man is obliged to marry her, under pain of excommunication.
In a footnote Burnaby added:
A gentleman sometime ago travelling upon the frontiers of Virginia, where there are very few settlements, was obliged to take up his quarters one evening at a miserable plantation; where, exclusive of a Negro or two, the family consisted of a man and his wife, and one daughter about sixteen years of age.

Being fatigued, he presently desired them to shew him where he was to sleep; accordingly they pointed to a bed in a corner of the room where they were sitting. The gentleman was a little embarrassed, but being excessively weary, he retired, half-undressed himself, and got into bed. After some time the old gentlewoman came to bed to him, after her the old gentleman, and last of all the young lady.

This, in a country excluded from all civilized society, could only proceed from simplicity and innocence: and indeed it is a general and true observation, that forms and observances become necessary, and are attended to, in proportion as manners become corrupt, and it is found expedient to guard against vice, and that design and duplicity of character, which, from the nature of things, will ever prevail in large and cultivated societies.
Burnaby’s picture of sharing beds was considerably more benign than Peters hinted at. He also emphasized that the practice prevailed “amongst the lowest people” in Massachusetts and along the Virginia frontier, not all classes.

Another British visitor who encountered bundling in Massachusetts was Lt. Thomas Anburey, taken prisoner in 1777. I quoted his recollections, published in London in 1789, back here.

TOMORROW: The observations of a visitor from France?

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