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.