- Historic Sites
The Secret Life Of A Developing Country
September/october 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
The well-organized birth and marriage records of a number of American communities reveal that in late-eighteenth-century America pregnancy was frequently the prelude to marriage. The proportion of brides who were pregnant at the time of their weddings had been rising since the late seventeenth century and peaked in the turbulent decades during and after the Revolution. In the 1780s and 1790s nearly onethird of rural New England’s brides were already with child. The frequency of sexual intercourse before marriage was surely higher, since some couples would have escaped early pregnancy. For many couples sexual relations were part of serious courtship. Premarital pregnancies in late-eighteenth-century Dedham, Massachusetts, observed the local historian Erastus Worthington in 1828, were occasioned by “the custom then prevalent of females admitting young men to their beds, who sought their company in marriage.”
Pregnancies usually simply accelerated a marriage that would have taken place in any case, but community and parental pressure worked strongly to assure it. Most rural communities simply accepted the “early” pregnancies that marked so many marriages, although in Hingham, Massachusetts, tax records suggest that the families of well-to-do brides were considerably less generous to couples who had had “early babies” than to those who had avoided pregnancy.
“Bundling very much abounds,” wrote the anonymous author of “A New Bundling Song,” still circulating in Boston in 1812, “in many parts in country towns.” Noah Webster’s first Dictionary of the American Language defined it as the custom that allowed couples “to sleep on the same bed without undressing” —with, a later commentator added, “the shared understanding that innocent endearments should not be exceeded.” Folklore and local tradition, from Maine south to New York, had American mothers tucking bundling couples into bed with special chastity-protecting garments for the young woman or a “bundling board” to separate them.
In actuality, if bundling had been intended to allow courting couples privacy and emotional intimacy but not sexual contact, it clearly failed. Couples may have begun with bundling, but as courtship advanced, they clearly pushed beyond its restraints, like the “bundling maid” in “A New Bundling Song” who would “sometimes say when she lies down/She can’t be cumbered with a gown.”
Young black men and women shared American whites’ freedom in courtship and sexuality and sometimes exceeded it. Echoing the cultural traditions of West Africa, and reflecting the fact that their marriages were not given legal status and security, slave communities were somewhat more tolerant and accepting of sex before marriage.
Gradations of color and facial features among the slaves were testimony that “thousands,” as the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass wrote, were “ushered into the world annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters.” Sex crossed the boundaries of race and servitude more often than slavery’s defenders wanted to admit, if less frequently than the most outspoken abolitionists claimed. Slave women had little protection from whatever sexual demands masters or overseers might make, so that rapes, short liaisons, and long-term “concubinage” all were part of plantation life.
As Nathaniel Hawthorne stood talking with a group of men on the porch of a tavern in Augusta, Maine, in 1836, a young man “in a laborer’s dress” came up and asked if anyone knew the whereabouts of Mary Ann Russell. “Do you want to use her?” asked one of the bystanders. Mary Ann was, in fact, the young laborer’s wife, but she had left him and their child in Portland to become “one of a knot of whores.” A few years earlier the young men of York, Pennsylvania, made up a party for “overturning and pulling to the ground” Eve Geese’s “shameful house” of prostitution in Queen Street. The frightened women fled out the back door as the chimney collapsed around them; the apprentices and young journeymen - many of whom had surely been previous customers—were treated by local officials “to wine, for the good work.”
From medium-sized towns like Augusta and York to great cities, poor American women were sometimes pulled into a darker, harsher sexual world, one of vulnerability, exploitation, and commerce. Many prostitutes took up their trade out of poverty and domestic disaster. A young widow or a country girl arrived in the city and, thrown on her own resources, often faced desperate economic choices because most women’s work paid too poorly to provide decent food, clothing, and shelter, while other women sought excitement and independence from their families.
As cities grew, and changes in transportation involved more men in longdistance travel, prostitution became more visible. Men of all ages, married and unmarried, from city lawyers to visiting country storekeepers to sailors on the docks, turned to brothels for sexual release, but most of the customers were young men, living away from home and unlikely to marry until their late twenties. Sexual commerce in New York City was elaborately graded by price and the economic status of clients, from the “parlor houses” situated not far from the city’s best hotels on Broadway to the more numerous and moderately priced houses that drew artisans and clerks, and finally to the broken and dissipated women who haunted dockside grogshops in the Five Points neighborhood.