This column is part two of a look at the marriage, courtship and family practices of our ancestors. See web.campbell.edu/faculty/vandergriffk/FamColonial.html for more information.
When it came to courtship, sex and marriage, we might believe that every Puritan was uptight and moral according to their strict religious codes, but we would be wrong. During the 17th century, it is estimated that about 10 percent of the births in New England came too soon after a marriage. By the middle of the 18th century and following the American Revolution, this number had risen to 40 percent.
Although the religious view of sexual conduct was quite strict, there was a difference between what the ministers preached and the behavior that the people accepted. A widely held view in the culture of the time was that a physical relationship was acceptable to begin at the time a couple became engaged.
Bundling, also called tarrying, was a custom that originated in England (and some other European cultures) and was carried over to the American colonies. Bundling allowed a courting couple to get into the same bed and court under the covers, presumably clothed. Sometimes a “bundling board” would be placed between the two, or each would be placed in a “bundling sack.” This practice usually took place in the girl’s home, with her parents asleep nearby. The custom of bundling was most common in the wintertime in poorer households and on the frontier. It allowed a couple to court after the sun had gone down and fires in the home were burning low. Many commentators of the times pointed out that this practice produced a number of “early births” that took place after a courting couple had hastily married. This was accepted by the society. Bundling as a custom lasted into the mid-1800s in some locales before it virtually died out.
Attitudes about sex and marriage in the South and on the frontier differed from those in New England. Part of this was due to the way in which the two areas were originally settled. New England was settled mainly by families seeking freedom of religious expression. They lived primarily in villages under the watchful gaze of their neighbors. Many of the southern colonies, such as North and South Carolina, were settled primarily by single men who came to the new world to seek their fortunes. These settlers most commonly lived on plantations that were far apart.
Cohabitation, bigamy, adultery, and serial cohabitation were all a part of early life in the Carolinas as well as on the frontier. Many brides were pregnant at the time of the wedding. In the South, marriage was a religious contract rather than a civil one as in New England. Access to clergy in the South and especially on the frontier, was often lacking, so couples cohabited without an official marriage, living in “common law” marriages. This practice was so widespread in the settlement of early Kentucky that in 1782 the legislature passed a law stating that all un-solemnized frontier marriages would be seen as legal. See www.brianreeves.com/Hume%20John/John%20Hume.htm for the petition that was sent to the Virginia legislature (Kentucky was a part of Virginia at that time).
A double standard existed in the South between what behaviors were allowed for a man versus a woman, especially in the upper classes. Upper class white women were expected to remain pure before marriage and expected to be faithful after marriage. They were held in respect and esteem by white men, and any straying from this standard would result in their ruination. However, a man could have relationships before marriage and commit adultery after marriage with virtually no consequence. The objects of their infidelity were white women of the lower and middle classes and female slaves.