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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: The Custom of Bundling
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 14, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Growing up in New England perhaps I should not have been surprised to be told to "bundle up" when it was cold outside. While I no longer live in New England, I still make the same admonition to my own children to this day. When I was growing up I am sure that I wondered about that saying, though since so many other mothers were saying the same thing it didn't sound particularly odd to me.

Years later, I would be reminded of the word "bundling" when the movie The Patriot, a movie about the fight for American independence, came out. There is a scene in the movie in which one character spends the night at the home of his future wife and he is sewn into a bag — a bundling bag.

Bundling was used out of necessity.

What is Bundling?

So then, just what is bundling? Bundling was a method of allowing a young man and a young woman who were of marriageable age to continue courting into the late hours of the night, by courting in bed. Bundling offered a way for the couple to continue their conversation well into the night.

Bundling was a necessity. When you think about the distances that often separated the farms in colonial times, it begins to make sense that when the boy came calling that if he had to return home that night he wouldn't have any time to spend with his girl before it was time to go home. Another way that bundling was used for courting was to have those homes with girls of marriageable age to place a lighted candle in the window. Boys traveling on foot or horseback know this was a sign that they could stop at the house and be bundled for the evening. One has to wonder how effective this was in catching a beau.

Bundling was apparently also used for more than just the courting couple. There was seldom much extra room in homes built in the 1600s since these homes already housed at least one large family. It boggles the mind when I think of how crowded it must have been in those homes.

Variations on a Theme

There are many different methods for bundling. The way used in The Patriot was to place one person in a bag of sorts that was then sewn at the top so that only his head was out. This was known as a bundling bag. Other methods included

  • Placing a board down the center of the bed that, in effect, cut the bed in half.
  • Simply laying on the bed with all clothes still on.
  • Placing a bolster - a long large pillow - down the center in the bed.

Where Did They Bundle?

While many consider bundling to be a northern tradition, it was actually practiced all over the place though it may have been done under a different name (for example, "tarrying" or "queesting"). In addition to the New England states, bundling was also practiced in New York and Pennsylvania. It may even have been practiced in some of the Mid-Atlantic states. It has also been said that it has been practiced by the Amish and Mennonites.

Another little known fact about bundling is that it did not cease to exist once we were in the 1700s. References to bundling can be found throughout the 1800s and there are reports of bundling taking place as recently as 1937. It is possible that in your family treasures you have a diary that mentions the practice of bundling, though they may not have called it that.

In Conclusion

Many of the words and phrases that we use today had a significantly different meaning in the past. Bundling is a perfect example. Today we think of it as a way of wearing lots of clothing to protect from the harshness of the weather as you are outside. Yesteryear it was a way of wearing clothing or some other deterrent, when being indoors. While there wasn't any harsh weather indoors, I am sure there were a few harsh fathers who expected the young men to be honorable.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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