Klock Historic Restoration
& Indian Castle Church
The Art of Bundling
Being an Inquiry into the Nature and Origins of that Curious but Universal Folk-Custom, with an Exposition of the Rise & Fall of Bundling in the Eastern Part of North America.
By Dana Doten, 1938
The Meaning of Bundling.
For mankind are by no means agreed about the things to be taught, whether we look to virtue or the best life.... The existing practice is perplexing; no one knows on what principle we should proceed.... Young men have strong passions ...it is the sexual by which they are most swayed.... They are sanguine; nature warms their blood as though with excess of wine.... Their hot tempers and hopeful dispositions make them more courageous than older men are.... ARISTOTLE, Politics
If RUMOR had been right, this last century, about bundling, there would be no excuse for a book on the subject. The whole matter, in that event, might be left to the debunkers and the connoisseurs of erotica, the privately printed pamphleteers. But rumor is not often correct, especially in reference to history, and few institutions have been more maligned by gossip than bundling. In any honest study of the eighteenth century horizon we must push our periscope above the muddy waves of Victorian commentary. The present volume has tried to do just that. It remains to consider briefly the significance of what we have seen.
First, a summary of bundling fallacies. Bundling was not covert, hypocritical, degenerate, sporadic, or confined to the lower classes, although these charges have all been made. It did not, at its height, involve special clothing or furniture-the bundling robe or the bundling board. The custom did indeed decline after 1800; perversions and variations and abuses gradually developed. But what institution in the world's history has not declined? To judge the Classic Period of American Bundling on the basis of late survivals is equivalent to judging Caesar on Nero's record.
The present importance of bundling resides in its illumination of Colonial character.
It was put forward, in our first chapter, that the men and women who made the American Revolution were the men and women who perfected the institution of bundling. Perhaps the evidence contained in subsequent chapters has indicated that the comparison has relevance. Colonial America was rural, self-dependent, vigorously healthy, straight-forward; bundling was the same. The Revolution might have been devised by the mercantile class of the cities, whose interests were threatened by British taxation and trade restriction, but it was carried through by the Yankee farmer. These countrymen could not be frightened out of their independence by George in, nor could they be frightened out of bundling by hell-fire and damnation. It was necessary, in sketching the background of bundling, to lay some emphasis upon the power of the Puritan Church, and the control of religion over the lives of the people. But this control, especially during the period with which we have been concerned, was subject to democratic checks and balances. The Colonial minister supervised his parish rigorously, but the parish voted him supervision. And when the parish decided that supervision had gone too far it removed the minister, as in the case of Jonathan Edwards at Northampton.
Class distinctions in morality were as repugnant to this rural America as were titles of nobility. City fashions and foreign styles in conduct did not fool them any more than baronial crests. All through the century European visitors joined with native snobs in sneering at bundling. Americans took their revenge in popular ballads which often struck back at upper-crust ethics. One recalls that catchy stanza from The Battle of the Kegs (1778);
Sir William, he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring,
NOT dreamed of harm, as he lay warm,
In bed with Mrs. Loring.
Incidentally, but for the lovely Loring's Tory sympathies, Sir William Howe might have made a more business-like job of the defense of Boston.
Bundling, admittedly, was an imported seed-but, planted in American soil, it produced a unique, a native flower. The Colonists, when they bundled, were neither imitating their "betters" nor obeying their religious leaders. They were blazing their own trail. They were following a code-that must never be lost sight of-but it was, like everything else they used, home-made. And it was a code which struck them as better than that in vogue with their social superiors.
It is a sad but genuine paradox that popular morality never correlates with religious standards in any age or land. There is, therefore, little point in criticizing our ancestors for not regulating their behavior by Puritan rules. Let it stand to their everlasting credit that they didn't. For the strict Puritan theology, with its denigration of man's role on earth, its neurotic absorption with the universality of sin, would, if put into actual practice, have created a living hell, in which no normal relationship between men and women would have been possible. The Colonists were willing to be led to the water of such salvation, but no one could make them drink the stuff.
The eighteenth century American depended upon himself. He built his own house, he raised his own food, he made his own laws. When he found no imported or manufactured morality suitable to his environment or acceptable to his conscience, he built a morality, too. Bundling was, let it be repeated, a homespun honor system. As homespun it was scarcely fashionable; as an honor system, it endured no longer than the individual integrity upon which it was based. But while it lasted it worked. And it lasted more than a hundred years.
Our kinship with the men and women of 1750 is a very real thing. Discovery of this kinship is a reassuring, a thrilling experience. Perhaps there is yet a chance for our generation to recapture that early spirit, that first dream of what America should be. The nineteenth century went whoring after strange gods-money, empire, privilege, exploitation of natural resources-impostors all, in the American scene. If we can emancipate ourselves from these fallacies we can win back the authentic American courage, a courage not equaled in the history of nations.
That is why bundling is worth remembering. For on the moral frontier we have, in some measure, won back that courage. Neither our century nor the eighteenth need be ashamed, of itself or of one another, on that score. In the mountains of Vermont there are still isolated cases of bundling.
Not long ago a friend of mine was spending a few weeks in the late fall on a hill farm in that section. He had discovered the spot by accident, on a hiking trip, and was the better pleased that the pleasant old house (built in the1790's) was several miles from the nearest generally-traveled road, tucked away in the corner of one of those narrow upland valleys typical of the region. He enjoyed the remoteness and beauty of the scene, the simplicity of the life, and soon became a real member of the small family circle, which included the farmer, his wife, two small children, and a hired girl, the pretty eighteen-year-old daughter of a neighboring farmer. This girl was at the time receiving the attentions of a young man whose father's farm lay three miles distant, beyond a high timber-clad ridge, and her suitor's visits were an accepted part of the household routine. The young lover's zeal was fully equal to the long hike over from his place, but a similar trip back late at night in chilly weather would have been putting too heavy a strain on any affections, no matter how firm.
It developed shortly that he invariably stayed the night, and that he shared the girl's bed in the small downstairs bedroom. After a proper amount of conversation in the kitchen, my friend recalls, the couple would gravely bid the family goodnight and retire. In the morning the young man would start off soon after breakfast, unless he had promised to stay and help with a piece of work that day. The striking thing about this arrangement was the attitude of the household. The farmer and his wife, who were respectable and solid people, not only approved, they took the affair so completely for granted that my friend hesitated even to discuss it with them. He eventually learned, however, that the girl was merely following out the same practice she had been accustomed to at home, and that her own family would have been offended if their daughter were forbidden such courtship privileges. My informant, having no special research bent, did not attempt to discover how widespread the custom was in that vicinity, but assumed, from the standing of the families involved, that the case could not be unique.
Whether the term "bundling" was in common use was another question he did not solve. But clearly the whole incident represented a true survival of Colonial bundling. Doubtless the bundlers would be surprised to learn that their conduct might be judged shameful by neighboring communities; they would be even more surprised at the approval of ultramodern moralists. In those same mountains the farmers were not driven back by the depression to the use of horses in their fields-they had never been able to afford tractors. The suggestion here is not that bundling will again become the mode in America. Our entire environment prevents such a reversion. The lesson is merely that any basic, honest, natural way of living or working lies beyond the reach of surface change, exists permanently, no matter how obscurely.
The history of bundling, therefore, while it may seem at first glance but a racy aspect of folklore, emerges at last as a truly instructive chapter in our national past. This book is designed to rescue the subject from the dim recesses of nineteenth century concealment, from misunderstanding and suspicion and distortion and lewd conjecture,-to bring it back into the realm of free discussion.
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