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Bundling: A Curious Colonial Custom

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When you think of the word “bundling,” I’m sure you think of several layers of clothing to protect yourself from the cold. Or, more likely nowadays, getting your internet, cable and cell phone all under one contract. In Colonial America, Bundling was the practice of putting a courting couple together in bed for the night, fully clothed, to get better acquainted before marriage. It was considered an acceptable way for two young people to spend the night.

A theory for this respectability comes from the story of Ruth and Boaz from the Bible. According to most articles and books I’ve read about bundling, Ruth and Boaz spent the night together on the threshing room floor. The story as written in the Bible has Ruth sneaking in after Boaz has fallen asleep then sleeping at his feet. Her mother-in-law told her this was the way to get Boaz to marry her. Boaz even states that he doesn’t want anyone to know that a woman has entered the threshing room. Not sure why this makes bundling acceptable, but people are known to very loosely interpret the bible when it’s convenient.

The practice of bundling came over to the states with the first colonists. There are some writings still around that talk about the use of bundling in the UK and Holland. The earliest mention in the states goes back to 1634. Bundling, also called Tarrying, gave a young couple the opportunity to spend time together in an intimate setting. Something that NEVER happened in the 17th and 18th century. Keep in mind that during this time you didn’t get to choose who you married, your parents did. You married to align families, to access other resources like land or livestock, or just to make sure you married into a family with wealth, prestige, or adequate resources. Back in the UK and Europe, this was the way everyone approached marriage unless you were dirt poor and had nothing to exchange.

In the new world, you had the added pressure of extremely limited resources. Marriage was more about survival. Couples needed to have children to increase the workforce and build up their wealth and property. This survival culture is most likely why bundling is mentioned more in the prosperous 1700’s than the struggling 1600s. The more people had to offer, the more they had to bargain in exchange for marriage. It was all about coupling finances and property, and the woman was also considered property.

Despite the limited resources, Puritan’s practiced this tradition more than the Virginia settlers. More families settled in New England than in Virginia, which mostly consisted of single men for the first couple of years. This difference meant that while Puritan settlers didn’t have much when they arrived in the new world, they were more apt to keep their marriage traditions from back home. Marriage was decided between fathers and involved discussions of dowry and inheritance, even if there wasn’t much with which to negotiate.

A man with resources (or a man from a family with resources) was able to meet his intended beforehand instead of just meeting each other on the altar. This meeting often meant a long trip requiring an overnight stay. Needing to spend the night gave young couple an opportunity to spend it together with the intention of getting to know each other through late night conversation. To ensure there wouldn’t be any hanky panky, they would not only be clothed but have a barrier between them. Sometimes it was a board that went down the length of the bed (bundling board) or a large pillow (bundling bolster) down the middle, or put in a sack (bundling bag) that could be sewn or tied shut to prevent them from removing it. The rest of the family went to bed, and the young folk were left alone if there was room enough in the house to be left alone.

This practice seemed to be more common in New England. Puritan’s weren’t as conservative as you would think, at least as compared to their Catholic counterparts of the time. Yes, life and work were all for the glory of God, all rules came from the Bible, and sex was not allowed outside the confines of marriage. A significant difference was the Puritan’s belief that sex should be enjoyable to insure pregnancy. If a couple was not having sex or if the husband could not perform his duties, the marriage was annulled. Perhaps this is why bundling seemed like a good idea rather than being thought of as immoral. By giving the couple a chance to warm up to each other, they could ensure a prosperous marriage not only in wealth and property but also in progeny.

Early Americans even thought the practice was practical. Travelers were allowed to bundle with their daughters as a way to save money. This way expensive fuel wasn’t wasted to warm another room, or the room they were in for that matter. Not only could the soon to be betrothed whisper in the dark to save candles, but the traveling salesman could also bundle up with someone to conserve expensive firewood. This economic necessity is most likely why the practice seems to be limited to rural areas.

Despite all its practicalities, things did not always go as planned. There were times when the young lovers crossed the bundling board, or they managed to get free of the sack. When comparing marriage records with birth records, by the late 18th century at least 30 to 40 percent of colonial brides were already pregnant on their wedding day. Surprisingly, as long as they were getting married it didn’t seem to matter. It’s even suspected that if the bride was pregnant before marriage that bit of bundling could prove the paternity of the child as indisputable. The bundling young man had to be the father, making any accusations or need for proof unnecessary. Just marry the girl, and all is forgiven.

Not everyone was cool with bundling. There have been published rants from the clergy. Jonathan Edwards preached against it in the early 1730’s.  In 1781, Reverend Jason Haven even outed some people in the congregation while preaching against the practice. In 1809, Washington Irving mentioned it in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York as a “superstitious rite practiced by the young people of both sexes.” and points out “…that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats annual born unto the state.” Bundling stayed around much longer than most clergy and sophisticated city dwellers liked. The custom spread from New England to New York and Pennsylvania then across the Midwest. There is some evidence that the Amish and Mennonites also practiced the custom for some time.

The custom fell out of favor quicker than you think. It stuck around for a long time but wasn’t very popular after the early colonies became prosperous. By the 19th century, it was still around but rare. You can find people talking about it as late as the 1930’s with stories about bundling “among the plain people.” Being thought of as only practiced by “plain” people will hurt any custom’s popularity.

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Today in Sex History: January 31st – The London Lock Hospital Opens

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The London Lock Hospital, which opened today in 1747, is known as the first VD clinic.

Lock was not a person’s name but a hold over from lock hospitals, also known at lazar hospitals, which housed those who suffered from leprosy. The first hospital for leprosy to use the Lock name, Southwark Lock Hospital, opened in the 12th century. The term “lock” doesn’t have a concrete definition. Some say it referred to the French word, la loque, for the rags or strips of linen used to cover afflicted areas of the leper’s body. Another possible origin is from an early Anglo-Saxon word, loc, that means “that by which anything is closed, an enclosed place, enclosure, fold.

Leprosy was on the decline by the 17th century, so there wasn’t much use for the lazar/lock hospital system anymore. Sexually transmitted infection was a much bigger problem. Several lazar hospitals, such the Southwark Lock Hospital and the Kingsland Lock Hospital, switched to treating syphilis and gonorrhea. Surgeon William Bromfeild (The correct spelling of his surname, not Bromfield) saw the need for a hospital in London dedicated to the treatment of venereal disease. He formed a committee and started work on The London Lock Hospital. They purchased a house near Hyde Park Corner to convert into the new hospital.

London Lock Hospital opened on January 31st with 30 beds, a staff of surgeons, physicians, nurses, apothecaries, a chaplain, and Bromfeild as a staff surgeon. The hospital treated 300 people in the first year. Unfortunately, the treatment of sexually transmitted infections used by the hospital was ineffectual. Mercury in a variety of forms was the most common treatment. It never worked and came with horrible side effects like tooth loss, increased sweating and salivation, bone loss, gum ulcers, and neurological damage. Mercury was more likely to kill you than cure you.

The National Health Service took over the London Lock Hospital in 1948, then closed it in 1952.

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Roe v. Wade: A Quick History

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As I write this, Roe v. Wade is celebrating its 44th anniversary just a day after the Women’s March on Washington. I wanted to share a quick history of this Supreme Court decision since not even I knew all the details other than the date and the resulting outcome. This post is not going to go into all the details, though. Roe v. Wade has a complicated and controversial history that is fraught with emotion, especial in these times. So this will be a “just the fact, ma’am” kind of post*.

Lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee would meet Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) in December of 1969 through adoption lawyer Henry McClaskey. Norma was pregnant with her third child and could not legally get an abortion in the state of Texas. She went to McClaskey to see if he knew how she could get an abortion locally. He couldn’t help her with the abortion, but he contacted Coffee knowing she was working to file suit to change the abortion laws. Current laws only allowed a legal abortion if the mother’s life was in danger. Women wanted an abortion had to travel to another state or out of the country to get one.

Even though the case wouldn’t be settled in time to change her condition, Norma became the plaintiff in Weddington and Coffee’s lawsuit. It was filed as a class action lawsuit so that it included not only Norma but also any woman in the present or future. The suit argued that women were had a right to an abortion under the 14th amendment, as it was a right to privacy issue. It also challenged that this was an unenumerated right protected by the 9th amendment, unenumerated rights were implied but not explicitly referenced in the constitution.

Weddington and Coffee also put together another case involving a married couple, John and Mary Doe v. Wade. Since Mary Doe had medical issues and her doctor recommended she not get pregnant. Coffee thought having a couple instead of a single mother seemed like a better plaintiff for a case. Dr. James Hallford was also added to the case since he was facing criminal prosecution for performing abortions in the state.

They filed the lawsuit on March 3, 1970.

“Wade” was Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. He was district attorney from 1951 to 1987. Wade was known for being the prosecuting attorney in both the Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby cases. Wade appointed John Tolle, one of his staff attorneys, to defend the suit instead of doing it himself. The state also appointed their attorney, Jay Floyd, to work on the case alongside Tolle.

The first district trial hearing was on May 22, 1970 before a panel of three judges of the Fifth Circuit Court; Judge Sarah Hughes, Judge William Taylor, and Judge Irving Goldberg. It got off to a rocky start when Judge Goldberg asked some hard-hitting questions and both Coffee and Tolle having trouble during their arguments. On June 17, 1970, the court dismissed Dr. Hallford’s intervention and the Doe’s lawsuit. They ruled in favor of Roe, finding the law unconstitutional as a right of privacy issue under the ninth amendment, through the 14th amendment.

Unfortunately, while the ruling stated it was unconstitutional to prohibit abortion, it did nothing to stop the courts from prosecuting. The ruling lacked the essential injunction against Texas that would prevent the state from prosecuting anyone who violated the law, even if it was deemed unconstitutional. The omission turned out to be in their favor as it gave Weddington and Coffee a chance to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On December 13, 1972, Weddington and Coffee argued before the Supreme Court. Jay Floyd returned to defend. The justices presiding over this case were Justices Harry Blackmun, Byron White, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Warren Burger, and William Douglas. They are down two justices due to Justices Hugo Black and John Harlan having just retired due to illness. After much debate and several arguments, the justices decided to reargue the case.

They returned to court on October 11, 1972, this time with Judges William Rehnquist and Lewis Powel. Rehnquist and Powel replaced Hugo Black and John Harlan but had not been sworn in until after the first hearing. Texas Assistant Attorney General Robert Flowers replaced Jay Floyd after a poor performance, and a terrible opening joke, at the trial but to no avail.

On January 22, 1973, the justices delivered a 7-2 decision in favor of Roe by right to privacy accorded by the 14th amendment. In the words of Justice Blackmun, “This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy”

*I’m quoting Dan Ackroyd as Joe Friday, not Jack Webb. Historically, Jack Webb never used that exact phrase even though it’s attributed to him

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Hi! I'm Miko. I'm going to take you on a journey through time. An exploration of the history of sex.

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