“Bundling” in Bolton

by Hans DePold, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, December 1996)

It's time to set the record straight! It's time to admit that it was we who shocked the French, and not the other way around.

When the French army of Rochambeau came to fight for American independence, its soldiers sported more ribbons and petticoats than our Connecticut young ladies. They had more formal-looking underwear than the Bolton locals wore for clothing. They prudishly changed in their tents while the local young people skinny-dipped in the rivers and streams.

You can imagine how surprised and disarmed the soldiers were when young ladies entered the privacy of their tents as they sat about in their frilly smocks. The diaries of the French officers tell those stories and more. Americans, with their vivaciousness and innocence, gave the French many shocking stories to write home about.

On October 28, 1782, General Verger wrote the following in his diary as he prepared to march to Bolton after the war was won:

"When they visited our camp, the girls came without their mothers and entered our tents with the greatest confidence. I cannot refrain from reporting a very extraordinary custom of this charming province, which is known as "bundling."

"A stranger or a resident who frequents a house and takes a fancy to a daughter of the house may declare his love in the presence of her father and mother without their taking it amiss; if she looks with favor upon his declaration and permits him to continue his suit, he is at perfect liberty to accompany her wherever he wants without fear of reproach from her parents ... Then if he is on good terms with the lady, he can propose bundling with her.

"... The man may remove his coat and shoes but nothing more, and the girl takes off nothing but her kerchief. Then they lie down together on the same bed, even in the presence of the mother--and the most strict mother. If they are alone in the room and indiscreet ardor leads the man to rashness towards his Dulcinea, woe to him if the least cry escapes her, for then the entire house enters the room and beats the lover for his too great impetuosity. Regardless of appearances, it is rare that a girl takes advantage of this great freedom, which confirms the food faith of these amiable citizens."

The culture shock of meeting such innocent, loving, and trusting people was more than the French soldiers could understand. That made the French behave all the more gallantly and honorably. But what about the long-term health and psychological effects of this Bolton bundling custom?

On June 22, 1781, General Clermont-Crevecour wrote the following in his diary upon traveling from Bolton to East Hartford:

"We have seen old people here of both sexes who enjoy perfect health at a very advanced age. Their old age is gay and amiable, and not at all burdened with the infirmities that are our lot in our declining years ... Foreigners are cordially received by these good people."

No doubt these older married people kept their youthfulness and feistiness by bundling on cold Bolton winter nights. That makes at least two Bolton traditions we have now well documented: candles in windows during the Christmas season, and bundling...yes, also preferably by candlelight.