Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bundling, Dreamspace & the Farmer’s Daughter

The other day I was reading a post an eBuddy of mine, Michael Cobb Bowen, had written about the possible advent of a female viagra-type drug. He ended his post with this statement:
Sex is dirty, complicated and embarrassing. You have to get naked and vulnerable. In fully formed human beings, that takes some doing and some mutual obligation. More than we think we know, and more than most are willing to say.
In thinking about it – how, say, vulnerability “takes some doing” in “fully formed human beings” – my mind wandered to bundling, an old courtship practice I’d learned about in my youth and thought rather prudish and quaint. Here’s a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry:
Traditionally, participants were adolescents, with a boy staying at the residence of a girl. They were given separate blankets by the girl's parents and expected to talk to one another through the night. The practice was limited to the winter and sometimes the use of a bundling board, placed between the boy and girl, ensured that no sexual conduct would take place. More often, this rule was merely implicit, and was not always honored.
I am no longer an adolescent. I’ve read quite a bit about sexual customs in many times and places and I’ve had enough life experience to know that sexuality is not, in reality, so simple as it was in my adolescent fantasy. Perhaps there was a bit of wisdom in bundling.

The fact that precautions were taken against sexual activity indicates that people were fully aware of sexuality, but they wanted to prevent it. That I can understand, but then why incur the risk by having the courting couple sleep together in the first place? If the object is to have them talk, why not let them talk in swing on the front porch, or sitting in the front parlor? Why have them talk at night, and in bed?

When we are sleeping we are, in the crudest possible way, most vulnerable. We are then open to physical attack. Thus we take great precautions to ensure that our sleeping places are safe.


In this context, of course, we take that for granted. There’s more to bundling than physical safety, which exists in the front parlor as well. No, we’re talking about psychological vulnerability. We’re talking about deep intimacy. It is as though the courting couple was to enter dreamland together and, through talking, share their dreams. I am reminded of a passage from John Milton's Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, where he asserts that ”God in the first ordaining of marriage taught us to what end he did it, in words expressly implying the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity.”

It’s not at all clear to me that the conversation of our bundling couple would be “cheerful,” but I rather doubt that they talked of the weather or the stock market. I can imagine, in fact, that they might well have found that talking a bit difficult and awkward at first, that they had to figure out just how to have intimate conversation, as such does not come naturally. I would like to think that they were learning how to become vulnerable, to return to Bowen’s statement.

That is, part of being a fully formed human being is the capacity for deep intimacy with another. Bundling thus served as a training ground for such intimacy. Perhaps the idea was that if and when the courting couple became married, that they would then be sexually comfortable with one another.

Some Evidence

This is all speculation, of course, but that speculation receives some support from anecdotes collected on this webpage, which reprints “Little Known Facts about Bundling in the New World,” which had been privately printed in 1938. There is, for example, the testimony of one Rev. Samuel Peters (undated):
The women of Connecticut are strictly virtuous, and to be compared to the prude rather than the European polite lady . . . Notwithstanding the modesty of the females is such that it would be accounted the greatest rudeness for a gentleman to speak before a lady of a garter, knee, or leg, yet it is thought but a piece of civility to ask her to bundle; a custom as old as the first settlement of 1634. It is certainly innocent, virtuous and prudent, or the puritans would not have permitted it to prevail among their offspring, for whom in general they would have suffered crucifixion ... I am no advocate for temptation; yet must say, that bundling has prevailed 160 years in New England, and, I verily believe, with ten times more chastity than sitting on a sofa . . . The sofa is more dangerous in summer, than the bed in winter . . .
There is this rather more equivocal statement, which dates from 1929:
There were districts in New England where the bundling light was a beacon to the farm lad who, of a Saturday night, went trudging afoot or on horse up the roads invoking and even daring fate. The Yankee with daughters to wed advertised the fact in this poetic manner. He had merely to put a candle in his window (more often it was the mother who lighted it or the marriageable girl herself) and bide the family's time.

That fate might not find her unreceptive, the daughter thus offered for mating enjoyed the distinction of a room of her own and a bed of feathers. To this she was wont to retire early ...

Presently the knight-errant, seeing the light, halted in his quest and tapped briskly on the pane . . .

Even if his features were more or less obscure through the window pane, yet he was a male and as such he was to be permitted to enter (through the window) for better or for worse. The bundling set in almost instantly, as verbal fencings and soft blandishments did not flourish in the early American farm house . . . Talking was not a fine art and therefore disregarded by the wise . . .
But bundling did have its more mundane uses:
Bundling Was a Legitimate Custom, to all intents and purposes - with all its dangers - among most of the American colonists, in one way or another in those early days. Violations then were not any greater than they would be today - except that today there seem to be easier ways to circumvent trouble.

The custom, happily for all concerned, was not confined alone to the courting couples, but was extended to army officers traveling from place to place, the good old peddler, and the traveling salesman; the minister and the doctor had the privilege, if they cared to exercise it; candidates for office could expect to be "invited" to join the family, or the daughter "in bed," if they had no fear as to some of the constituency raising objections as to "morals."

What may be legitimate to one person, may sound too-far-fetched for another. But it was great fun, yet to modest persons, sometimes quite a trial, when two or three and sometimes more old-fashioned families got to visit under one roof, and all went to bed together - or as many as could get in bed - others on the floor - some in the barn!
That’s a world different from the one I have known. There are, of course, many such worlds.

In any event, I sent that page to Bowen and he replied that perhaps therein lies the origin of those many jokes about the farmer’s daughter and the salesman. So it was back to the web for more evidence.

The Farmer’s Daughter

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the ur-farmer’s daughter joke went something like this:
A traveling salesman's car breaks down on a country road one evening. He is miles from town. He walks to a nearby farm house, and the farmer doesn't have a phone, but says he'll take the salesman into town in the morning. Since the salesman isn't going anywhere, the farmer offers to put him up for the night. The condition is that he'll have to sleep with his daughter because there aren't any other beds. He is warned to behave himself. The farmer's daughter, who is drop dead gorgeous, is almost 20 years old and has a shape that would easily qualify her as a centerfold.

At bed time, the farmer's daughter puts a pillow between herself and the salesman. She explains that her father told her to put the pillow there to separate the two of them. Nothing happens that night.

In the morning, the salesman is stowing his bag in the back of the farmer's pickup when he sees the farmer's daughter feeding the chickens on the other side of the fence. He walks up to the fence and offers the farmer's daughter a thank you for sharing her room and her bed. The farmer's daughter walks up to the fence and tells the salesman that he is welcome, and then flashes a bright smile at him and winks. The salesman smiles and says that he has half a mind to climb over the fence and kiss her. She says, "If you can't climb over a pillow, how you gonna climb over this here fence?"
While one doesn’t need to know about bundling in order to get the joke, that pillow does seem to derive from the practice. That is, somewhere back in the lineage of conversations that produced this joke, some one knew about bundling and drew on the knowledge in forming this joke.

The joke itself seems both obvious and subtle. It is the farmer himself who suggests the arrangement, and he warns the man to behave. The daughter who puts the precautionary pillow in place, on daddy’s instructions, is also the daughter who comes on to the salesman as he leaves. The suggestion, of course, is that he could have had her if he’d removed the pillow. Perhaps so, and perhaps daddy would have found out and given’ him a beating. Perhaps. And perhaps the daughter came on to the salesman as he was leaving because it was then safe to do so. Perhaps.

Jokes are like that, they leave things open to interpretation.

And they also offer themselves up for promiscuous recombination and variation. This web page tells an elaborate variation involving two daughters in which the salesman has sex with both daughters. But there’s no hint of bundling. The salesman doesn’t sleep with either daughter; the sex took place in the salesman’s car.

This page gives several such jokes, none of which betray any relationship to bundling. I like this one because it crosses the farmer’s daughter joke with the Polish joke (though, of course, the teller can alter the ethnicities to suit local prejudice):
Three guys were driving in a car when it broke down. One was Irish, one Italian, and one Polish.

When there car broke down they walked to the nearest house. It was raining so they asked if they could stay the night.

The farmer said yes as long as they didn't touch his daughter.

So that night, the farmers hot daughter invited the Irish guy to her room, but to get to her room they had to walk past the farmers room where his cat slept in the doorway.

The Irish guy goes over and the floor squeeks, the farmer wakes up and says "What was that?"

The irish guy quickly went "meeeeoowww". The farmer went back to sleep and Irish guy went to the girls room and they had sex.

Next she wanted the Italian guy, so he went over and the same thing happened, the floor squeeked, farmer wakes up, "meeeowww", farmer goes back to sleep.

Finally the Polish guy goes over, and the floor squeeks, the farmer asks agiain "What was that?",

The Polish guy responds, "Its me the cat!"
Notice, however, that while the practice of bundling is gone, that the story is still about a farmer’s daughter. Why? There are two obvious considerations. The rural locale motivates the basic situation: a man needs a place to spend the night. And then there are the connotations of rural, at least to city slickers and suburbanites: backwoods, primitive, earthy, animal.

Just as we’ve lost bundling altogether, we’ve also lost the need to educate a courting couple in the ways of intimate conversation. That was jettisoned in the ur-joke.

Transcending the Joke

Nor does it return in this brilliant short story by Debra Marquart, “The Farmer’s Daughter: A Revision.” This story is fully aware of the jokes in this tradition, and so it is aware of how at lest some of those jokes play on the tradition itself. As does Marquart. I’ll be you can’t guess the ending, but I’ll also bet that, by the time you get there, you’ll have seen it coming from miles away. Here’s how the story begins:
She waits, as all farmer’s daughters must, in her bedroom at the top of the wooden staircase, along the balustrade, down the creaky hallway to the right. The light from her window glows golden through lace curtains and spreads like a beacon across the tilled fields, the thick black furrows and hundreds of acres belonging only to the farmer that roll in waves around the farmhouse.

It’s important to know that the farmer’s daughter is beautiful, that her beauty is like the sound of one hand clapping, not in the forest, but in a cornfield or a wheat field where she goes during the lonely days to spin in the ripeness, oblivious to her beauty, which is the same oblivious corn-fed beauty and the same oblivious wheat field her mother spun in.
“She waits,” there’s your clue. She waits.


  1. "The Arrows that murder sleep, at every
    hour in the cold night, are love-lamenting,
    by reason of times spent, after day in the
    company of one from beside the land of Roigne.

    Great love for a man of another land
    who excelled his coevals has taken my
    bloom (little colour is left); it allows me
    no sleep

    Sweeter than all songs was his speech
    save holy adoration of heaven's king:
    glorious flame without a word of
    boasting, slender softsided mate.

    When I was a child I was modest: I
    used not to be engaged on the evil
    business of lust; since I reached the
    uncertainty of age my wantonness has
    begun to beguile me......"

    Creides lament for Dinertach.

    Women were not allowed to sleep when engaged in keening. The spells they cast in Gaelic poetry have close relationships with sleep.


  2. .
    Hello again, William:

    Thank you for this fine post -- and congratulations too on your post on the National Humanities Center site.

    You write:

    The fact that precautions were taken against sexual activity indicates that people were fully aware of sexuality, but they wanted to prevent it. That I can understand, but then why incur the risk by having the courting couple sleep together in the first place?

    I believe that part of the answer may be found in the early Christian practice of the subintroductae, and in Mahatma Gandhi's parallel "experiment" in brahmacharya.

    I've just posted the collection of quotes and references I made on the topic for my friend and colleague, Stephen O'Leary of USC, on my own Forensic Theology blog for your convenience, but wanted to draw your attention particularly to Charles Williams' description of the Christian version of this business, drawn from his The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church:

    It seems that there was in the first full rush of the Church, an attempt, encouraged by the Apostles, to ‘sublimate’. But the experimenters did not call it that. The energy of the effort was in and towards the crucified and Glorified Redeemer, towards a work of exchange and substitution, a union on earth and in heaven with the love which was now understood to be capable of loving and being loved. In some cases it failed. But we know nothing – most unfortunately – of the cases in which it did not fail, and that there were such cases seems clear from St Paul’s quite simple acceptance of the idea. By the time of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the 3rd Century, the ecclesiastical authorities were more doubtful. The women, sub-introductae as they were called – apparently slept with their companions without intercourse; Cyprian does not exactly disbelieve them, but he discourages the practice. And the synod of Elvira (305) and the Council of Nicea (325) forbade it altogether. The great experiment had to be abandoned because of Scandal.

    Tolstoy put the crude objection in the Kreutzer Sonata, and Cyprian more or less agreed. “But then excuse me, why do they go to bed together?” Both wise men were justified as against a great deal of sentimental lust and sensual hypocricy. But even Cyprian and Tolstoy did not understand all the methods of the blessed spirit in Christendom. The prohibition was natural. Yet it seems a pity that the Church, which realised once that she was founded on a Scandal, not only to the world, but to the soul, should be so nervously alive to scandals. It was one of the earliest triumphs of “the weaker brethren,” those innocent sheep who by mere volume of imbecility have trampled over many delicate flowers in Christendom.

    William Graham Sumner ties this practice in explicitly with bundling in his Folkways: A Study of Mores, Manners, Customs and Morals, Chapter XV: The Mores can make Anything Right and Prevent Condemnation of Anything, sect. 576 (Bundling) and following -- as you can see in my extended quotation on my blog.

    Consider also this passage from Stanley Wolpert's Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi:

    Gandhi was testing the "truth" of his faith in the fire of "experience." His had always been a practical philosophy, an activist faith. He appears to have hoped that sleeping naked with Manu, without arousing in himself the slightest sexual desire, might help him to douse raging fires of communal hatred in the ocean of India, and so strengthen his body as to allow him to live to 125 in continued service to the world.


    Oh! -- and my best to Michael Bowen!

  3. Thanks, Jeb and Charles. This is most interesting stuff.

  4. The Sumner does testify to historical continuity between bundling & ancient Christian practice. It would be interesting to read letters, diary entries, and other contemporary accounts.

  5. You may find this interesting as background as it discusses two genres associated with song, love and sleep.

    Keening, crooning, and casting spells: women, sleep and folk genres in medieval Irish poetry. H.J. Larson. In ‘Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium‘, 2006

    Its up on Jstor