08/08/07 - colonial sex

In today's excerpt - sexual practices in America during colonial times:

"Colonial New England was not as simon pure ... as we might think. Just a half century after the Mayflower Pilgrims landed on Massachusetts's shores, Boston was 'filled with prostitutes', and other colonial centers were equally well equipped with opportunities for sexual license. Despite its modest size, Williamsburg, capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1779, contained three brothels (though curiously none of these has been incorporated into the sanitized replica community so popular with visitors today).

"Sex among Puritans was considered as natural as eating and was discussed about as casually, to the extent that, the historian David Fischer writes, 'the writings of the Puritans required heavy editing before they were thought fit to print even in the mid-twentieth century.' Premarital intercourse was not just tolerated but effectively encouraged. Couples who intended to marry could take out something called a pre-contract—in effect, a license to have sex. It was the Puritans, too, who refined the intriguing custom of bundling, or tarrying as it was often called, in which a courting pair were invited to climb into bed together. ...

"As one seventeenth-century observer explained it: 'When a man is enamoured of a young woman, and wishes to marry her, he proposes the affair to her parents; if they have no objections, they allow him to tarry the night with her, in order to make his court to her.' ... Up to a third of bundling couples found themselves presented with a permanent souvenir of the occasion. Nor did it necessarily mark the advent of a serious phase of the relationship. By 1782, bundling was so casually regarded, according to one account, that it was 'but a courtesy' for a visitor to ask a young lady of the house if she cared to retire with him.

"Although never expressly countenanced, fornication was so common in Puritan New England that at least one parish had forms printed up in which the guilty parties could confess by filling in their names and paying a small fine. By the 1770s, about half of all New England women were pregnant at marriage. In Appalachia and other backcountry regions, according to one calculation, 94 percent of brides were pregnant when they went to the alter.

"Not until the closing quarter of the eighteenth century did official attitudes to sex begin to take on an actively repressive tinge with the appearance of the first blue laws."


Bill Bryson


Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States


First Avon Books


Copyright 1994 by Bill Bryson


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment