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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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

“They recline in the dark together”

The 18 Oct 1792 Connecticut Gazette included a letter addressed to the newspaper and signed “MODESTY.” After discoursing for five paragraphs on “that most amiable virtue Chastity…nearly the measure of worth in a woman, and no less amiable in a man,” the pseudonymous writer concluded:
My chief object in this attempt is to expose a low, vulgar practice which prevails in some obscure parts of the country, where knowledge and civilization have made little progress. What I refer to is the mode of what they improperly call courtship, otherwise called, in their dialect, bundling; that is, when a young man would make a visit to a young woman, he repairs to the place of her abode, perhaps near the usual time of going to rest, and when the family have retired, or soon after, the girl escorts her suitor to her bed-room, where they recline in the dark together, and remain until morning.

Now far from wishing to inculcate morose, superstitious notions, I appeal to the good sense and good conscience of old and young, comparing the common strength of human fortitude, and the doubtful tendency of morals, with the constant impulse of desire, whether this custom ought to be approved or condemned; sure I am that no person will give his approbation who does not at the same time licence debauchery.

Ye affectionate parents, can you rest easy to have your children thus repeatedly exposed in the vortex of temptation? Is the virtue of your fair daughters impregnable to such advantageous attacks from a false hearted swain? who perhaps when you little suspect it, will use every effort to seduce, betray and ruin!

I would address this shameful picture—taken thus from the life, to every woman who enjoys that purity, and delicacy of sentiment, which forms the true dignity of her sex. I need not ask your opinion, I am sure the very recital is cruel, and the idea intolerable to you.

Ye fair! will you justify the practice? then you betray your seduction. Are you afraid your suitors will be fewer? O shame! the fewer such suitors the better; none can loose reputation by refusing a dishonorable suit; or have you by length of habit got the better of that silly weakness called female modesty, and adopted the polite manners of a certain class of women in great cities, who are called ladies of pleasure?

Accept the council of a well wisher, reject in every instance, with abhorrence, the dirty practices alluded to. If after having waited on your visitor an afternoon, or an evening, or at any time, he endeavors to drag you to bed, know ye that his aims are dishonorable; let your resentment, however civil, be serious and firm—admit of no parley, no persuasion, no question in the matter. Suspect the addresses of one above your rank; if dishonorable, convince him that though he fancies himself to be above you in rank, he is beneath you in dignity. And be sure that many below your rank, would wish to humble you to a level with themselves.

Ye young men! is modesty to form no part of your characters? how came you in possession of so great a fund of wisdom, as to set you above the dictates of the wise in all ages? Temperance, chastity, and self government, have ever been their dictates; what is it that has thrown the scales from the eyes of our enlightened youth, and enable them to discover the cheat? Are you sure that repentance will not pursue your wisdom? You will soon begin to repent, and feel a stigma hanging on your characters; through a married state, and a family state, you will be haunted with shame and remorse. How will the idea agree, when snowy locks adorn your brows? The remembrance may follow your hearses to the grave. And are you sure that you shall not be accountable? let me invite your attention to the subject; assist in the reformation, wipe off the stain from our times, that you and your posterity may be better men and women. Let me remind you that those who indulge habits of incontinency in youth, are prone to be faithless and perfidious in a married state; therefore it were well to take care, lest you inconsiderately foster those flames which in their progress may take their turn to rage with horror in your own dwellings.
Two things strike me about this newspaper essay.
  • It’s the first explicit attack on bundling that I’ve found printed in an America newspaper. There are anecdotes of earlier preaching against the practice, and that supposed letter from a fictional Frenchman satirizing it, but this was a straightforward public assault on the practice. Which of course meant acknowledging that it was common, and risking the resentment of any couple who had practiced it.
  • The writer avoided Biblical arguments, stating that he or she was “far from wishing to inculcate morose, superstitious notions.” Rather than warn against certain damnation, the writer merely asked, “And are you sure that you shall not be accountable?” This was an appeal to virtue and public honor. Were those republican virtues a more widely acceptable way to preach morality in the new nation?
I didn’t find any direct responses to this letter in the Connecticut Gazette, but the following year brought a public debate over bundling in another New England newspaper.

TOMORROW: Up in New Hampshire.

1 comment:

Gsparky said...

Something tells me the did more than just recline. But perhaps that's just me...