10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History

Larry Holzwarth - January 27, 2018

In the mid-eighteenth century, prior to the events of the American Revolution, about one of every three young women who walked down the aisle to marry did so while with child, according to extant court and parish records. This rate varies but slightly among the colonies, whether Puritan New England, Quaker Philadelphia or genteel Charleston. By comparison in England, the aptly named mother country, nearly 50% were pregnant when wed. Colonial society often viewed marriage as a business contract and matches were usually arranged based on the fortune, social status, and earning ability of the future husband. Among the arrangers, love was something which would come later, if at all. Husbands and wives had duties to each other and together to the community, the raising of a family among them.

These attitudes stood little chance of prevailing against human nature and emotions. Formal courtship, engagement, and marriage certainly existed and were undoubtedly favored by parents whose children were of marriageable age, but the path was often strayed from through the distractions of hormonal development and physical proximity. In America’s largest towns, all seaports, a thriving sex industry added to the daily pulse of life, and to the alarming rates of venereal disease. As of now, the pulpits raved against illicit and premarital sex. There were severe penalties for sexual crimes and adultery, but the risk of punishment was frequently outweighed by the promises of love and pleasure.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
Families with several healthy children were a priority in the English colonies of North America. Wikimedia

Sex in colonial America is an often misunderstood subject, shrouded in myth and a belief in a fictitious morality. Here are ten examples of sexual behavior and practices in colonial America.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
A re-enactment of a couple divided by a bedboard. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


Other than along the coast, where the eastern towns were connected by primitive roads and coastal waterways, travel in the colonies was a difficult and tiresome affair. What roads existed were subject to the vagaries of the weather, a fine day for travel could quickly become a day of struggling through a quagmire. Many people were born, grew up, and lived their entire lives within a few miles of the town where their forebears had lived. The people one knew were the people who lived there with them, with occasional visits from relatives or other travelers, often traders and hunters.

Most women in colonial America were considered old enough to begin the courtship rituals at the age of fifteen or sixteen, though most deferred marrying until they were into their twenties. In nearly all communities the young men eligible to call on young ladies were subject to the approval of her parents, and they of course looked upon eligibility using a different set of requirements than those of their daughter. Property and prospects were key. Of course, there were often young men with neither – at least in the opinion of the father – who appeared determined to carry off a girl they had likely known all their lives. Sometimes they prevailed, more often the daughter was presented in an arranged marriage.

Whether arranged or the result of romance, it was customary in many communities for the young couple to complete certain steps during the courtship, one of which was to determine their ability to live together. Living together meant sleeping together, and in a society subject to long, cold winter nights which heated its homes by wood-burning fireplaces, the shared bed was a means of staying warm as well as a place of rest or other activity.

Throughout the colonies, a sort of test drive for marriage, as it were, was arranged once the courtship appeared to have reached the stage to warrant its need. The young man would spend the night in the house of his beloved, with her in her bed, her parents in theirs in a separate room, to determine if the couple was compatible nocturnally. Certain rules applied of course, primarily no touching, and to enforce them the bed was fitted with a board, laid on its edge longitudinally down the bed’s centerline, to keep the young pair apart. Usually, the board was less than one foot in width.

It would have been a very unhealthy couple of youths incapable of surmounting the board under such circumstances, and one wonders how many courtships were shortened, with the wedding date moved up, after a boarding night. There was a social stigma attached to being boarded with more than one beau, and it occurred soon before engagement was formally announced.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
Some tied the practice of bundling to the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz. National Gallery in Prague


The practice of bundling was likely brought to the American colonies by the Dutch, as it was a long practice in the Low Countries and it flourished in Pennsylvania and New York in colonial days. Bundling was a practice similar to boarding, although rather than separating the courting couple it actually brought them closer together while preventing the possibility of sexual contact, at least in theory. Bundling was so common that it was sometimes practiced in inns, allowing for a bed to be shared by strangers without fear of inappropriate behavior ruining their night’s rest. This allowed innkeepers to charge a fee for half a bed, increasing their income without expanding their space.

Some believe that bundling, as did so many colonial traditions, originated in the Bible, in the story of Ruth and Boaz. But there is nothing in the story in the book of Ruth which indicates that Ruth and Boaz were bundled together, merely that Ruth slept at his feet, covered with his cloak, on a threshing room floor. It seems likely that the biblical link came after the fact to justify the practice in Puritan New England.

The distance between homes and the difficulties traveling them likely contributed to the development of the practice as well. Travel during a winter New England or New York night could be dangerous, and darkness comes early in the winter months. Although many conservative ministers disapproved of the practice and preached against it whenever it was known to the community that it would take place (which in smaller towns was considered news). Jonathan Edwards disapproved of the practice, as did many Puritan ministers.

Bundling allowed for some sexual intimacy because the couple was sewn into a sack together, with the mother or elder sister of the young woman in the bundle stitching a line which prevented the couple from full physical contact. It usually took place at the home of the woman, with her parent’s knowledge and participation. The couple was left to spend the night in solitude together, to be released in the morning. It no doubt led to many intimate secrets between the couple, and probably some irate parents.

Both bundling and boarding were practices which were considered to be for the good of the community, since healthy, stable marriages were the cornerstone of community life. They were less common in the larger coastal towns, although still practiced in some, especially Boston and Portsmouth. In cases of arranged marriage, it allowed for an establishment of a relationship with the promised couple not otherwise available in the manners of colonial society, where chaperones were prevalent at public events.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
Some arranged marriages required extensive negotiations and exchanges. Wikimedia

Arranged Marriage

It is commonly believed that women married at a much younger age in colonial America than they do today. This isn’t true as a rule, although there were some that married quite young. Arranged marriages remained quite common, and though some women were promised in marriage while still in their mid-teens, the wedding was usually delayed until a more suitable age was reached. Women were often promised in negotiations which discussed the acquisition of property as part of the marriage, particularly as the class system based on wealth hardened in the colonies.

Among the moneyed class, young men and women were expected to bring wealth, reputation, and real property to a marriage. This posed several problems for men wishing to marry. Property was often handed down to the eldest son, younger brothers often received lesser estates, or smaller amounts of money with which to build their own. But the eldest was beset with difficulties by this system as well, forced to wait for his father to dispense his largesse before bringing a strong negotiating position to the bargaining table with his proposed in-laws.

The system often presented a dilemma to the couple whether they were entering a purely arranged marriage or if there was love involved. Human nature being what it is, frequently one or the other, or both parties to a marriage arranged by the parents, found themselves attracted to parties outside of the arrangement. The situation was rife with potential for what would be termed illicit sexual behavior. Virginia’s George William Fairfax was married to Sally Cary in a marriage arranged by their parents. Sally was the first true love of George Washington, and there is evidence that she reciprocated his feelings. But she remained true to her marriage.

George Washington was considered by Sally’s father to be beneath the class of the Cary’s, as the heir to the Washington family fortune and lands was his older half-brother Lawrence. Such niceties of detail in arranging marriages were common in Virginia among the landed families, and no doubt contributed to the many incidents of dueling which were common as well.

It wasn’t only the man who needed to bring value to the negotiations for marriage. The bride’s family needed to provide a dowry. Upper-class fathers needed to keep their wits about them when their daughters selected a suitor on their own, particularly if the gentleman in question was from another area and relatively unknown, a visitor from England for example. Previously arranged marriages prevented their daughters from being taken by a disreputable son of a broke English nobleman, hiding from debtors in America, hoping to marry into money.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
Blacksmiths were favored to perform common law marriages, with the anvil representing the forging of a new life. History.org

Common Law Marriage

Although most states no longer recognize common law marriage, in England and in the English colonies of North America it wasn’t unusual. Common law marriages were for the lower classes, but by no means limited to them. They were simply married without the benefit of clergy or magistrate. In any marriage, the property of the wife became under the control of the husband, who could dispose of it as he chose. Property discussions were not normally part of the situation for a couple entering into a common law marriage.

The belief remains that simple cohabitation for a defined period of time constitutes common law marriage. This is most often not the case and was not the case for common law marriage in the colonies, which descended from the practice in England. To be married under common law, a declaration of intent was required. There was no need for any written document, including a license, which was one reason they became popular in England, as they were recognized without the payment of a tax to the government, or a fee to the Church.

Parish registries, which in many communities were the more reliable census of the region, carried common law marriages and the births resulting from them on their pages. There was little stigma among the working classes. Members of the upper class who entered into common law marriages to avoid an undesirable union arranged by their parents or guardians may have been met with disdain by their peers, nonetheless, it was frequently resorted to by couples from the gentility when love overwhelmed financial and social considerations.

To enter a common law marriage the couple performed a ceremony which was known as spousal contract. In the southern colonies such as Virginia, the ritual was known as handfasting. The couple held hands and exchanged vows which, much like the modern equivalent, were chosen by themselves. If no witness was available they could still exchange their vows as long as they both attested under oath that they had done so if later challenged (say by an irate father of the bride). In essence, common law marriage required an oral contract of marriage and was recognized as valid by most authorities of Church and State in the colonies (the Roman Catholic Church did not).

There was a recognized contract of future marriage as well, and if the couple so contracted found themselves to be with child before the date of the marriage arrived, under the terms of the future marriage contract they were automatically wed. Oral contracts were again sufficient, but it was a practice among many women of the working class to have a friend or sibling listening as the promises were exchanged, to ensure later enforcement if the gentleman tried to shirk his obligations.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
Adulterers and others who violated sex laws were publicly humiliated and badged for their offenses. Wikimedia

The Scarlet Letter

The early colonies had laws which governed sexual behavior, some of which reached even into the marriage bed, though they were less likely to be stringently enforced over acts between married couples. Many if not most of these laws were derived directly from the King James Version of the Bible, specifically from the Book of Leviticus. In Plymouth Colony, a man was hanged for the crime of bestiality, which was confessed, and the animals involved and identified by the man killed as he watched before he was executed. The court specifically cited a verse from Leviticus at his sentencing, “If a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death; and ye shall slay the beast.”

Crimes of a sexual nature which were considered less severe were nonetheless dealt with by the courts, which followed the laws defined in the Bible. The sex laws which evolved in New England, in particular, were based on the Bible because the founders of the first New England colony defined their mission in their first governing document, the Mayflower Compact. In that, they agreed that they had come to the New World “…for the Glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.”

Despite Leviticus calling for death in the cases of incest, adultery, sodomy, and virtually every other act of a sexual nature not sanctioned by marriage between husband and wife, mercy often prevailed and lesser punishments were handed down. Punishments were designed to be a warning to the rest of the community, and as such were usually a humiliation to the punished. Whippings were common, as were a stint in the stocks, bearing a sign describing the transgression. Punishments were announced from both court and pulpit.

One married woman committed the crime of what court records called “the act of uncleanness” with an Indian by the name of Tinsin. The court ordered that she be whipped while pulled through town roped to an oxcart. She was further ordered to wear a badge on her sleeve, identifying her crime, whenever she appeared in public. If she were to be found in public without the badge, the emblem would be branded on her cheek. Tinsin’s punishment was less severe – he was whipped publicly while tied to a post by a neck halter – because the court found that he had been “enticed” into his crime.

Premarital sex was evident and punished as well. Firstborn children arriving prematurely were evidence of “incontinency before marriage” and as the evidence was divinely provided suitable punishment was necessary. The husband was typically whipped and the wife, now a mother, was usually given punishment via the stocks. As New England grew, punishments for sexual acts were less severe, but the laws remained on the books until the development of State Constitutions during the Revolutionary War. Many of the new laws were based on Leviticus as well.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
In a Hogarth print, a returned sailor is in a garret room with a prostitute. Life on Hogarth’s London was similar to that in Philadelphia. Wikimedia


The hinterlands of the colonies, when the frontier was but a few hundred miles from the coastline, were self-governed by necessity, with colonial authority mostly concerned with the collection of taxes and rents, and the suppression of Indian attacks. Within these smaller communities, the issue of prostitution was limited because everyone knew everyone else, and the communities often didn’t tolerate such things. But it did exist. In York County Virginia, which although the small city of Williamsburg abutted it was largely rural, the Grand Jury met twice each year, and charges of prostitution were common.

Women working as prostitutes were usually charged with the offense of fornication, and typical punishments included fines and whippings, held in public, on “…her bareback laid well on.” The idea of a public lashing of a semi-nude woman obviously did not appear unseemly to the court. There were charges in several of the colonies of inns and taverns operating as “disorderly houses” – a term which sometimes indicated a bordello, and for which the records show punishments in the form of fines.

America’s larger towns were along the coasts, and they operated ports. The seaports developed a bustling trade, and the coastal towns were hosts to sailors from other American towns and from around the world, as British ships were often crewed with men of all nations and races. In the towns, a bustling trade in prostitution developed, even in still Puritanical Boston, and the absence of police vice squads placed enforcement of the laws in the hands of moral authority. Churches solicited information about prostitutes to hand over to the courts.

Brothels were present in all of the larger cities, and their presence was hardly a secret. A portion of Philadelphia, then the largest city in America, was known as Hell Town. It hosted several brothels and although the idea of them being marked with a red light had not yet taken hold, their location was easy to learn from past patrons. Some brothels were specifically for the more genteel members of Philadelphia society, where discretion could be had, cards could be played, good wine could be sipped, and the entertaining ladies were ensured to be free of venereal disease.

Streetwalkers plied the streets nearer the wharves and warehouses, where business could be transacted quickly in an alley or dark corner. They often were accompanied surreptitiously by cohorts who would then rob her customer of any remaining money before dumping him in the water. The streetwalkers and the transient sailors contributed significantly to the rise of venereal disease in the colonies, especially the disease which was called the Great Pox – syphilis.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
Midwives were more important than doctors during births, all over the world as well as in the colonies. They were also abortionists. Wikimedia

Birth Control

America’s continuing roiling debate over the issue of abortion was non-existent in colonial days prior to the Revolution, indeed prior to the 1800s. Surprisingly to many, this is not because abortion did not yet exist. It’s because there were no laws against abortion. In the colonies, abortion was readily available, relatively safe given the medical knowledge and practices of the time, and completely legal up to the time when the mother felt the first kick of her baby, the quickening. Falsification of the history of abortion notwithstanding, the evidence of the legality and availability of abortion in colonial America is there for whoever wishes to know the truth.

One reason that the punishments for premarital and extramarital sex lessened over time, when they were punished at all by the late 1700s, is that they were so common. Even as far back as the Pilgrim days of Plymouth Colony, premarital sex is evident in the number of so-called premature births, which throughout the entire colonial era was around 40%. Agreeing with English law and practice, the Puritans allowed abortion up to quickening, believing that to be the point of life beginning.

Most babies were born in the colonial era through the assistance of midwives, who were far more prevalent than doctors, and when it came to childbirth usually more skilled. These midwives were also aware of the methods to induce abortion, usually through the use of herbal potions. Surgical abortions were both rare and dangerous, as were all surgeries at the time, given the rate of post-surgical infection.

Nor was there present in colonial American any stigma attached to the woman who chose to terminate her pregnancy through abortion. Strong healthy families were prized in the early American communities, but it was also recognized that families unable to provide their own support could be a burden on the community. Abortion was accepted in these communities without question and were accomplished openly, the midwife a valued member, rather than a pariah lurking on the edge of town.

There were other forms of birth control, none of which were particularly effective given the birth rates of the colonies, which were among the highest in the western world. Abortion was simply not an issue in colonial America, and it was practiced for the most part as a method of birth control, rather than as a medical necessity, as medicine was not far enough advanced to understand most of the dangers presented by some pregnancies. Not until the early 1800s, following the War of 1812, would laws affecting abortion be enacted in any of the former colonies.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
The characters featured in this late 18th century cartoon are Marie Antoinette and the Marquis de Lafayette. Wikimedia


The presence of pornographic materials, writings, plays, and songs was prevalent in the American colonies, although what was then considered pornographic differs from that of today. There were few laws which addressed the word specifically, which has distracted some researchers from observing its presence. The colonial language used words such as lewd, lascivious, immoral, lustful, wanton, and so forth to describe what today would be called pornographic.

Benjamin Franklin both enjoyed and created it in writings and cartoons, often by disguising it within drawings or what would now be called graphics. Clergy warned against it from the pulpits, claiming that viewing pornographic materials would lead the miscreant to other, more serious violations of the law, including masturbation, which was considered to be immoral and also illegal. A young man named Samuel Terry of Springfield Massachusetts was fined and given lashes after being found behind the churchyard, “…chafing his yard to provoak (sic) lust,” driven to the offense by lewd thoughts arising from immoral speech.

A growing literature in the colonies germinated in colonial times against the immorality of slavery, and the prevalence of masters and overseers using female slaves for sexual purposes. This drew much of its material from the Islamic world, then called muhammedism by the Western world, with slaveowners entertained by harems selected for the purpose. Slave markets too were described in pornographic detail as the potential buyer examined females offered for sale.

Native American habits and behaviors were also distorted by writers hoping to titillate their readers, describing multiple wives living with their husband in the same lodge, with all of them engaging in sexual activity together, and with wives being traded back and forth among the men of the tribe. These accounts were often described as being from the records of French missionaries living among the Indians, and were used to further denigrate the Indians as savages practicing the sexual behavior of wild beasts, although the behavior was also graphically described.

Pornographic materials in the form of letters and pamphlets were also produced describing the breeding sheds of the southern plantations, where women were raped by men selected by the master in order to produce children. As much anti-slavery propaganda as pornography, these were produced for consumption of men in the North during the first emergence of the anti-slavery movement. Slavery was already becoming an issue of discomfort and debate in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War, but pornography was not.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
Frontispiece of 1611 edition of the King James Bible. The Bible was the source of most of the colonies’ laws regarding sexual behavior. University of Pennsylvania Library


The fact that homosexuality was present in the earliest settlements of the colonies is evident from the creation of laws outlawing it and the records of the courts punishing those who violated them. In 1636 Plymouth Colony enacted laws prohibiting homosexual encounters, with strict penalties to be applied. Connecticut passed similar laws in 1650, with even harsher penalties attached. The records of both colonies reflect the prosecution of individuals for violating the laws, but they also reflect the steady lessening of the penalties imposed over time.

This may indicate the development of a more open-minded attitude among the Puritans and other groups over time. It may also be a reflection of the realities of the day, in which the colonies faced labor shortages as they grew, and the need for healthy manpower outweighed the need for moral retribution. It may also indicate a reluctance among judges to inflict severe penalties for the commission of a crime that had become common, as it had for premarital sex and other violations of the law which overwhelmed the courts with cases.

Providence Colony, which later became the colony of Rhode Island, referred to sodomy as a “vile” act. “…whereby men given up thereto leave the natural use of woman and burn in their lusts one toward another, and so men with men work that which is unseemly.” None of the colonies addressed the subject of women with women in their laws or their interpretation of the Book of Leviticus, upon which the law and penalties were based, with the exception of the New Haven Colony, which was absorbed into Connecticut.

By the end of the colonial era, all the colonies had laws against sodomy, some of the specifying both men and women, and all of the colonies had greatly reduced the penalties imposed by their courts in most cases, although the laws specified the penalty to be death. But attitudes changed over time. During the American Revolution, a man known for homosexual behavior was in France seeking a position with the American Army while simultaneously facing prosecution for sodomy under one of the German states’ draconian laws.

The man was Baron Wilhelm Von Steuben, and Benjamin Franklin, then in Paris, knew of the charges and of the likelihood they were true. Franklin also recognized the military ability of Von Steuben and the value it would bring to the still amateurish American Army under Washington. Franklin chose to look the other way as regards Von Steuben’s sexual orientation and wrote letters recommending him to Congress and to Washington himself.

10 Weird Common Practices in Colonial America in the Early History
A political cartoon of doctors forcing medicine, in this case tea, down America’s throat to cure her while liberty weeps and France and Spain watch. The cartoon mocks doctors, sexual assault, and England’s policies all at once. University of Michigan Library

Venereal Disease

In colonial America, disease was a dangerous condition, and epidemics of smallpox, typhus, cholera, malaria, scarlet fever, and others were commonplace in all the colonies. There was also syphilis of nearly epidemic proportions. Syphilis was brought back to the Old World by Columbus, though there is some debate if that was the first time the disease visited Europe. There is no doubt that it was prevalent among the American Indians, and it soon spread through the colonial populations, referred to as the Great Pox, or simply the Pox.

The English colonies were seen by the mother country as an alternative to maintaining convicted criminals in jails at the expense of the public. There were no health restrictions to prevent convicted prostitutes from being shipped to the colonies to become indentured servants, nor to those of their customers who may be infected by venereal diseases as well. Thus the colonies continued to import syphilitic peoples as the colonies grew. Syphilis spread throughout the colonies, and was feared for its degrading and debilitating effects.

By the late 1760s, just prior to the beginning of the activities which would lead to war with England and independence, syphilis and other venereal diseases were at epidemic levels, though then as now they were dependent on sexual contact with multiple partners as a means of spreading. The prevalence of venereal diseases is alone an indication of sexual practices in the English colonies of North America. Their spread was by 1760 a major preoccupation of the medical profession who were, in reality, helpless to do much about it, ill-informed of its causes and ill-equipped to control the disease.

By the 1770s advertisements were appearing in the newspapers and broadsheets throughout the colonies, in nearly all of the cities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and down the coastline to Georgia. These advertisements listed the addresses of doctors who had studied the venereal diseases which had reached epidemic proportions and offered the means to cure the disease. Apothecaries similarly advertised the sale of nostrums to control the ravages of the diseases.

In reality, the medicines did little other than offer some relief of the symptoms, and the doctors could do nothing in the absence of antibiotics to cure the disease. Venereal diseases which started in the colonies continued to plague the American continent, by the time the United States entered the Second World War syphilis was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Today STDs continue, rampant throughout the country. Venereal disease offers one more reason to realize that the sexual behaviors of the colonists were not all that different from those of today.


Here’s where to learn more:

Courtship, Sex, and the Single Colonist: The Colonial Williamsburg Journal

Sex Shops in Colonial America: Slate

What You Need to Know About Common Law Marriage: Brides

How the Pilgrims Changed our Sex Lives: NBC News, November 22, 2006

Sex and Sexuality in Early America: Merrill D. Smith

Abortion in Early America: Z. Acevedo: National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health