It was considered a practice of unrefined rustics, sneered at by city slickers and the upper class. The patrician Charles Francis Adams, grandson of John Adams, wrote in 1891 that “the practice of ‘bundling’ has long been one of the standing taunts or common-place indictments against New England.”
A courting couple ‘bundled’ or ‘tarried’ by spending the night partially clothed in bed together. It was done with the full knowledge and consent of the parents, according to Edwin Valentine Mitchell in It’s an Old New England Custom. The mother and sisters often tucked the couple into bed, but took precautions: the girl was wrapped like a mummy, or her legs were tied together, or a bundling board was placed between them and sleigh bells attached to the bed.
The practice was widespread in rural New England, but unknown in the cities.
In 1828 (late in the Bundling Era), a young lady from Portland visited her aunt in rural Maine, and was shocked when a handsome young farmer invited her to bundle. She wrote a letter that included his description of bundling:
'It is the custom in this place, when a man stays with a girl, if it is warm weather, for them to throw themselves on the bed, outside the bed clothes; if the weather is cold, they crawl under the clothes, then if they have anything to say, they say it-when they get tired of talking they go to sleep; this is what we call bundling-now what do you call it in your part of the world?' 'We have no such works,' answered I; 'not amongst respectable people, nor do I think that any people would, that either thought themselves respectable, or wished to be thought so.'
The antique winter sport was controversial even in its day.
Bundling became popular in Northampton, Mass., only to be denounced by the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century. He was alarmed by the rise in births less than nine months after the wedding, and he denounced bundling as shameful and disgraceful.
But Connecticut minister Samuel Peters in 1781 defended bundling. In his General History of Connecticut, Peters characterized bundling as ‘certainly innocent, virtuous and prudent, or the Puritans would not have permitted it to prevail among their offspring…’
He noted that Boston, Salem and Newport banned bundling around 1756 and ‘rendered a sofa to render courtship more palatable.’ But, he wrote, bundling had prevailed since 1634 with ‘ten times more chastity than the sitting on the sofa.’
Peters had three daughters and spoke from 40 years’ experience. He believed the sofa in summer was more dangerous than the bed in winter.
"Notwithstanding the modesty of the females is such that it would be accounted the greatest rudeness for a gentleman to speak before a lady of a garter, knee, or leg," wrote the Reverend Peters, "yet it is thought but a piece of civility to ask her to bundle.”
That view was shared by whoever wrote the rhyme,
Let coat and shift be turned adrift,
And breeches take their flight,
An honest man and virgin can
Lie quiet all the night.
Adams, who shared Jonathan Edwards’ take on bundling, tried to pin down the origin of the old Yankee custom in his paper, Some Phases of Sexual Morality and Church Discipline in Colonial New England. Adams was sure it hadn’t come from England, as had so many New England folk customs. Not only had bundling not been reported in England, but:
Down to the beginning of the present century, or about the year 1825, there was a purer strain of English blood to be found in the inhabitants of Cape Cod than could be found in any county of England. The original settlers of that region were exclusively English, and for the first two centuries after the settlement there was absolutely no foreign admixture. Yet nowhere in New England does the custom of bundling seem to have prevailed more generally than on Cape Cod; and according to Dr. Stiles it was on Cape Cod that the practice held out the longest against the advances of more refined manners.
Charles Francis Adams concluded the custom of bundling sprang from necessity during a ‘simple and comparatively primitive period.’
A young man interested in a young woman only had a brief window to court her: from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, he wrote. Houses were far apart, and he might have had to walk 12 miles to see his girlfriend. Fuel was precious, so If the young lovers wanted to stay up and talk they would have to do it in the cold and dark. Bundling in a warm bed was therefore a preferred option.
The Vermont Almanac and Register for 1799 carried an oft-told folk tale about bundling:
While the American troops were at Cambridge, 1775, an Indian chief from one of the western tribes, was on his way to visit them. It happened that he was detained a number of days at a gentleman's house in --. While he was there the gentleman's daughter received a visit from her suitor. One evening the honest native, thinking to divert himself a little in their company, went upstairs: But when he entered their chamber he stood in amaze, crying out, 'Ho! bed-No do for me Indian!' 'Why (says the spark), we can be good here as well as anywhere.' 'Yes! yes! but you can be wicked more better!'