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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Monday, September 17, 2012

“Those city ladies who prefer a sopha to a bed”

The Rev. Samuel Peters (1735-1826) was a Connecticut minister of the Church of England, thus a minority within the Puritan-founded colony and a natural Loyalist. He moved to England in 1774 and seven years later published a history of Connecticut that included a lot about the mistreatment of Loyalists and the curious habits of New Englanders—some of which might even have been true.

Among other topics, Peters wrote about bundling: the custom of letting young unmarried couples visit or sleep together in bed. Sometimes families used boards and bags to prevent the couple from having sex, but the most powerful barrier was gravity—the gravity of the social consequences if the woman became pregnant.

Peters was snarky about bundling, but not entirely negative, as this anecdote shows:
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 sopha to render courtship more palatable and Turkish. Whatever it was owing to, whether to the sopha, 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.

In 1766, 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, than attacked by a shoal of good old women, with, “Sir, do you think we and our daughters are naughty, because we allow of bundling?

“You lead yourselves into temptation by it.”

They all replied at once, “Sir, have you been told thus, or has experience taught it you?”
And there’s no right answer for that question, is there?
The Levite began to lift up his eyes, and to consider of his situation, and, bowing, said, “I have been told so.”

The ladies, unâ voce, bawled out, “Your informers, Sir, we conclude, are those city ladies who prefer a sopha to a bed; we advise you to alter your sermon, by substituting the word Sopha 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 father or mothers to own them, than are born among us; therefore, you see, a sopha is more dangerous than a bed.”
Click on the thumbnail above for a Colonial Williamsburg article about colonial American courtship rituals.

TOMORROW: The argument is translated to a higher level.

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