If you're ever faced with having to share a bed with a stranger, you might be glad of an old-fashioned bundling board. A stout wooden plank laid down the middle of the bed to keep the occupants apart, the board was a tradition in colonial America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Courting couples might be allowed by their parents to sleep with a bundling board between them, preserving the appearance, at least, of propriety.
The practice of bundling is said to have been inspired by the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz, who "tarried" the night away, sleeping together on a threshing room floor, before going on to marry. In the King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Ruth, 3:14 runs: "And she lay at his feet until the morning: and she rose up before one could know another."
Bundling may have been introduced to colonial America by settlers from Scotland and Wales, according to Henry Read Stiles, author of the 1871 study, "Bundling: Its Origins, Progress, and Decline in America." Also known as "bed-courting," the idea was that the board held the covers down, so that an amorous couple couldn't get their hands on each other, but could at least, test their compatibility before entering the bonds of marriage.
Bundling is particularly associated with New England. Some commentators have claimed the practice took hold there because of the intensely cold winter climate, as well as the very long distances between the homesteads of early settlers. This meant young lovers were often obliged to stay overnight in each others' homes. Bundling also seems to have been a way of accommodating weary travellers, in the absence of plentiful inns.
A large, heavy wooden plank was laid down the middle of a double bed, over the top of the bed covers. For a more permanent arrangement, the board might be fixed to the headboard and footboard of the bed, to form a solid partition about 30cm (12 inches) in height. Some headboards of the period even had a special groove carved into them, to hold the bundling board in place.
As an alternative to the fixed board, or as an additional precaution, anxious parents could resort to a "bundling sack." This was simply a two-person sleeping bag, made by sewing sheets together, but with a firm seam down the centre, to separate the bed's occupants. Particularly lusty couples might find themselves tied into their respective bundling bags until morning, to prevent them from getting too frisky.
By tradition, a courting couple would get to bundle together under the roof of the young woman's mother and father. The board was meant to exclude the chance of a baby being conceived out of wedlock. In addition to the bundling board's role in keeping courting couples chaste, it may have featured in the lives of established married couples who wished to avoid more pregnancies.
The bundling board was perhaps more effective as a symbol than as a practical measure to separate hot-blooded lovers. As an added precaution, parents of the couple might insist the lovers remained fully, or partially clothed for their trial night. In a further antidote to illicit passion, the courting couple might have ended up "tarrying" in a bedroom shared with several other members of the family.