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

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