A Courtship Ritual With Ancient Roots
by Patricia L. Cummings
What exactly is bundling? When did it begin? Where was it known? How long did the heyday of the “bundling institution”
last? What purpose did it serve? Who engaged in it? Why did certain evangelical ministers sing of its evils from the pulpit?
Why were there songs and poems written about bundling? This article will attempt to answer these questions about this
simple yet fascinating topic.
Bundling As A Matter of Convenience
Bundling was a practice in which a young man and young lady slept together in the same bed, usually fully clothed. Think
of the saying, “All bundled up.” Sometimes, the girl wore a sack that was enclosed with a slip knot at the bottom and tied
with a drawstring at the waist. If a parent had anxiety about the situation, the sack could be sewn shut. Proponents of
bundling in bed felt that visiting on a couch presented far more temptation, although some courting also was done in that
Permission Needed to Court Daughter
In Puritan New England, where a good deal of bundling occurred, fathers of prospective brides felt a compelling sense of
duty to oversee their daughters' affairs of the heart. A young man who did not ask a father's permission to court his
daughter could be sued in a court of law. The seemingly strange custom of bundling allowed parties of marriageable-age to
talk quietly when the heavy work of the day had been completed. They could relax together without the need to sit near the
fire to keep warm. This saved on the use of both firewood and candles, although that was probably not the main goal. The
couple was trusted to remain chaste. Truly, if the suitor loved the woman, he would see to it that her reputation was not
compromised by her becoming an expectant mother, out of wedlock.
In Colonial America, where houses were widely spread geographically, a young man might have to travel quite a distance to
court. Considering the long journey and the fact that he had worked very hard all day long, it made sense that he would
spend the night. Bundling provided a way to avoid the mindless chitchat of parents.
Bundling Boards – Psychological and Physical Barriers to Contact
To divide a bed in half, so that each party would have an allotted space, a board was placed as a divider. In fact, some beds
were especially made to insert that board. Some bundling boards were sturdy, high and difficult to remove. Others were
just a reminder not to cross the barrier. In lieu of boards, “bundling bolsters," long pillows that equalled the length of the
bed, were set in place instead.
(Bundling boards are reported to have been used in the cities of Lancaster and Intercourse, Pennsylvania, and some have
been seen in museums in Pennsylvania, according to sources. I will report the results of my further inquiries here).
The Practice of Renting Half A Bed
In early homes, bed space often fell short of demand, and it was not uncommon that individual homeowners would
sometimes rent out “half a bed” for a night to a weary traveler. Rumor has it that strangers sometimes “bundled” with
young ladies. More often than not, it was often the head of the household who would share his bed in this manner to
provide lodging to a wayfaring stranger. Before inns were common, this was a good way to earn a little bit of cash.
When Did Bundling Actually Begin?
The earliest cited example of bundling is a scene described in the Holy Bible (Ruth 3:6 and 3:13) which passages both infer
that Ruth and Boaz laid together all night on a threshing floor. (Boaz later became Ruth's husband.) The history of bundling
as an established courtship ritual can be traced back to the days of ancient Rome, according to the 1872 book, History of
Bundling: Its Origin, Progress and Decline in America, by Henry Reed Stiles. That book, reprinted in 2004 by Kegan Paul
(London, New York, and Bahrain), was so controversial when it was first published, it was banned in Boston.
Colonial America's Bundling Roots
Stiles discusses bundling in the context of it being a custom that was brought to America by the Puritan settlers who
actively engaged in the practice, especially in Connecticut. Stiles also alludes to the Dutch people of New Amsterdam, New
York as having brought the custom of “queesting” with them. He concludes that the word means “searching after a wife,”
and was carried out in the same manner as other bundling.
An internet article, an excerpt from The People's Almanac by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace sets forth the belief
that bundling has been practiced since “the beginning of America,” and was pretty much the universal custom between
1750 and 1780.
Bundling may have been started in the British Isles and Wales. The book, The Art of Bundling, by Dana Doten (The
Countryman Press and Farrar & Rinehart, 1938) begins with this paragraph:
If you are eligible for the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution you have bundling blood in you. More especially is
this true if your forbears (sic) lived north of the Mason -Dixon line, a circumstance which should recompense you for
those same ancestors' failure to provide your line with colored slaves and a “big house before the war.” Because bundling is
a proud heritage.
Pardon the seemingly racist remarks. They merely reflect the times in which the book was written.
Bundling Practiced in Wales
According to a traveler account in Stiles' book, in twelfth century Wales, entire families would lie down together on a
"bundle” of straw, covered by cloth. A later traveler account attests to bundling as a courtship practice there, in 1797. Stiles
believes that the custom was engaged in primarily by the lower class of society in Wales.
Bundling: A Tradition in Other Countries
This kind of courtship was carried on throughout Central Asia and Afghanistan, where it was known as namzat bezé.
According to Afghani language scholar, Rachel Lehr, the word namzat means “betrothed,” while the meaning of the
perhaps older, second word, has not been uncovered yet.
There is reference to the phrase, namzat bezé, in the book Love and War in Afghanistan by Alex Klaits and Gulchin
Gulmanadova-Klaits (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005). However, engagements are discussed. Most often, parents
arrange marriages by mutual agreement, often exchanging “sweets.” The book describes several kinds of engagement
practices. In cities, a hejobatqabul ceremony is celebrated, over which a mullah presides. After this ritual has occurred, the
couple may visit with each other, and even spend the night together. Whether or not the couple is expected to remain chaste
is not mentioned. In contrast, in country villages couples are forbidden to see each other until the wedding ceremony.
As a point of interest, according to the traditions of Muslim society, a woman may have only one husband, but a man may
take up to four wives. Divorce is allowed, and a man may execute his own divorce by saying, “Taloq, Taloq, Taloq.” In a
book entitled, The Atlas of Islam: People, Daily Life and Traditions by Neil Morris (Florence, Italy: McRae Books, 2003),
the author states that “In Islam, marriage is seen as a legal contract rather than a religious sacrament.” Women marry
young, and there is always an agreed-upon dowry involved.
In a soft cover booklet entitled, "Bundling: A Curious Courtship Custom Among the Amish" by Elmer L. Smith (Akron,
Penna.: Applied Arts, 1961), the author states that, in Norway, bundling was called "night running." He says that the term
came about because "young men had to travel long distances to court." He cites a book by Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-
1959) who called himself simply "Havelock Ellis." He wrote Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Philadelphia, 1910), Vol. VI.,
In Sweden, the practice of young couples sleeping together before marriage, was called frieri. According to practice, a
group of young men would arrive together at a time when it was common for adolescent girls to sleep in a barn or pasture
hut during the summer, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All would leave, except for one boy who would spend
the night with the girl. The booklet has a well-documented Bibliography and goes into much detail that includes illustrations
throughout its pages, rendered by Leon Milchunas.
Clerics' Wrath Curtails Bundling in New England
Led by the evangelical Congregationalist, Jonathan Edwards, (1703-1758), of Northampton, Massachusetts, other
preachers began to denounce bundling as the work of Satan. A fire and brimstone sermon delivered by the cleric, in 1733,
convinced many that bundling is an evil deed. Due to the ensuing sermons that demonized the practice, many resources
state that the practice of bundling was essentially abandoned by 1800. That does not take into account the later bundling of
During the seventeenth century, Puritans came close to thinking that life itself was a sin, according to Dana Doten (page
106). Therefore, all kinds of punishments were devised to teach evil a lesson: “the gallows, the pillory, and the lash,” were
among a dozen other consequences designed to give evil-doers a taste of what might lie ahead in the world to come.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's American Gothic novel about Puritans, entitled The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, the
protagonist of the story is a woman who becomes an expectant mother, out of wedlock. She refuses to name the father,
and is forced to wear a Scarlet letter “A” which stands for “Adulteress.”
Other letters of the alphabet that sinners had to wear are listed in Doten's book. As he reveals, the letter “A” could also
stand for “Arson.”“D” represented “Drunkenness.” “T” stood for "Thief.” These are just a few examples he cites.
Couples who confessed to having had sexual relations before marriage were required to stand in front of the congregation
to be shamed publicly. Their sin of “fornication,” meant that the letters “C.F.,” which mean “Confessed Fornication,”
appeared forevermore after their names in the church directory.
The Amish – Last of the Bundlers?
The Pennsylvania Dutch (the Amish) appear to have carried on the bundling tradition into the twentieth century. A booklet
that crops up often in the literature that discusses bundling is, “The Night Life of the Pennsylvania Dutch (Better Known as
Bundling)” by J.E. Herrera A.B., B.D.M.S.M. (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Dutchcraft Company- York Pennsylvania Press,
1966). Herrera supports the idea that bundling was still occurring when he wrote the booklet. He says, “This writer has
found that young people bundle in Pennsylvania to this day, but just didn't know that's what you call it!”
Quilters Allegedly Discussed Bundling at Quilting Bees
In Herrera's opinion, bundling was “open game for gossipers." He states:
Sometimes, a quilting party was the place to gossip. A group of women would travel to the home of a friend and quilting
frames were set up and patches sewed and maybe hook rugs made. Here the gossip would hit an all time high. Can you
imagine the things that were talked about. One thing you can bet for sure. Anybody that was bundling and was known
about got a thorough going over that day.
In the closing remarks of the pamphlet, Herrera says, “We could list over 100 books on the subject, both light and
scholarly. You must decide and ponder the facts and the fiction.”
The Ohio Amish Bundled
In 2006, Joan Kiplinger, vintage fabric authority, revealed in an online post that the Amish of the Middlefield, Ohio area, use
or previously used, bundling beds. These were constructed to have a board inserted down the middle. She further mentions
that the Quakers in New Philadelphia, Ohio, also used this bundling method, perhaps because the Holmes County Amish
settlement is in such close proximity.
Is Bundling Still Practiced Somewhere?
We do not know for sure if this ancient custom is still practiced. We have never seen a bundling bed for sale anywhere, nor
have we seen one in a museum. Inquiries to antique shops and museums in the Ohio area did not reap a response. The first
knowledge we had of bundling itself was after purchasing a pamphlet while shopping for antiques. If the Amish are still
engaging in the practice, that information is certainly not widely broadcast.
New Century; New Challenges
To be worried about young people engaging in bundling seems like a quaint notion in the twenty-first century. In contrast,
at a New Hampshire conference for educators in the late twentieth century, Jacqueline Sowers, M.Ed., a New Hampshire
resident and Educational Consultant shared this finding: young people of high school age mainly “get into trouble,” in their
own living rooms, in front of the television, between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., while both parents are still at work.
By contrast, bundling in a girl's bedroom, within ear shot of her parents, who would protect her safety, at all costs, seems
like a very innocent thing indeed. Times change and so do social and moral conventions.
Courtship and Marriage Rituals Have Changed
The ways in which young people engage in courtship has evolved over time, and has kept pace with our changing world. A
very interesting online article entitled, “Courtship in Early America,” compares two examples of dating couples, in
1708/1709, and another couple, in 1835, respectively. The author of the article reveals that by the first third of the
nineteenth century, young people were increasingly free to choose a marriage partner without much parental interference.
By the 1840s, the marriage customs that we know so well today had been instituted. These traditions include the white
bridal gown and veil, the white cake, and attendants. A terrific book is entitled To Love and To Cherish: Brides
Remembered by Linda Otto Lipsett (San Francisco: The Quilt Digest Press, 1989).
Plethora of Writings on Bundling
The resources used to prepare this article include two books specifically written about bundling. The first was published in
1872, and the last was printed in 1938.
Dana Doten's book, The Art of Bundling (The Countryman Press and Farrar & Rinehart, 1938) takes issue with some
points made in the Stiles book. Surprisingly enough, Doten also refers to the exact two pamphlets that I had acquired. The
Herrera pamphlet has already been discussed. The other booklet is called “Little Known Facts About Bundling In The New
World,” by A. Monroe Aurand, Jr. (Lancaster, PA: The Aurand Press, 1938). By his own account, Aurand wrote twenty
publications about bundling within a ten year period.
Time Erases All Memory
Most of us who are living today, in America, have no direct knowledge of bundling. Now considered to be an archaic
practice, in its day, bundling incited a raging controversy between those who believed that it was a viable courtship ritual,
and those who vehemently opposed the practice on religious grounds, and in acknowledgement of some of the pregnancies
that did, in fact, occur as a result.
Bundling Important Enough for Verse
Many songs and verses were written about bundling, some of them quite lengthy. I will leave you to ponder the last two
lines of the final stanza of one popular ballad about bundling, written anonymously in 1780.
An honest man and virgin can - Lie quiet all the night.
Ask yourself this: Would you have made a good “bundler”?
In the movie, "Witness," there is a scene in which the protagonist, played by Harrison Ford, spends the night with an Amish
woman, in a bed with a bundling board between them.
Letter Indicates Bundling Still Practiced
Letter to Patricia Cummings from Laurie R.
It was with some interest that I read your article on the custom of bundling from the July issue of The Quilter magazine. I
am both a quilter and a member of a Beachy Amish Mennonite church in Middlefield, Ohio. I didn't grow up Beachy, my
husband and I joined the church in 1987. Beach Amish is a relatively small denomination made up of (mostly) ex-Old Order
Amish. In practice, we are very so similar to the more conservative Mennonite groups; we have electricity, cars,
telephones, computers, etc. but not TV or radio. We have a plain style of dress and the women cover their hair, which is
uncut. You can read more about the group here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beachy_amish
I can attest to the fact that the custom of bundling is still going on in our area, although I don't think they use that term. I
have a friend who was Old Order Amish until about 20 years ago and she confided that she and her boyfriend (now
husband) practiced 'bed courtship,' which is the term I've heard used for this practice. She said that the girls made special
dresses that they wore for this custom, which used their basic dress pattern, but employed the use of snaps rather than
straight pins to close the dress. They were also permitted to use fabric colors not normally allowed in their everyday
dresses, like yellow or pink.
Because the custom of "rumspringa," or allowing the youth to 'run around' is very strong, the parents may pretend not to
know that their daughter and her boyfriend are spending the night together right under their own roof. As you might
imagine, this practice has resulted in a very high rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but because the couples nearly always
marry as soon as the girl becomes pregnant it doesn't affect legitimacy rates. One ex-Amishman told me he guessed the
percentage of 'have-to' weddings in our area to be around 50%!
The custom may be old, it may be quaint, and it may have begun innocently enough, but it certainly isn't moral, at least not
in this day and age. It is one of the reason that some Old Order members choose to leave the Amish church and become
members of more progressive Mennonite congregation.
The above letter is one of several that were exchanged.
If you have any further knowledge about current practices of bundling, whether called "bed courtship" or some other name,
we would love to hear from you.
©Copyright 2007/2015. Patricia Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. All rights reserved.