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5 Courtship Rituals from Colonial America

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What’s a party without a little romance? Even the Colonists needed love, and their methods might just work for you at your flossy party this Fourth of July.

1. Find a Live One

The earliest colonists—the Puritans who struggled for every mouthful of food and whose yearly death count exceeded that of any George Romero movie—did not have time for the frippery of love and courtship. Marriage was a survival pact. Courtship involved finding a woman of childbearing-ish age who had survived the previous winter. The man plowed things and kept threats of attack at bay. In return, the woman would keep the vermin out of the gruel she whipped up and would provide an outlet for sinful Puritan urges. Urges which would, in turn, provide the young couple with more laborers, so that this circle of mosquito-infested, frost-bitten drudgery could continue until they were released to God by sweet death.

2. Have Your Dads Arrange It

After things were more settled in the (not-at-all-new) “New World,” the living got a little easier, and marriage became more businesslike. In the early 18th century, the American patriarchal home was at its finest. And not patriarchal as we use the term today, where it can be applied to anything from the injustice of the glass ceiling to men who insist on standing up to pee. Back then, a woman literally belonged to her father or husband. They had something called “laws of coverture” which prohibited a married woman from owning property, even if it was hers before the marriage. So “dating” wasn’t really a thing then. Dads did the dating for people.

Marriage was a business arrangement that two men would make, their bargaining chips being their sons’ inheritance and their daughters’ dowries. The goal was to marry wealth and property together; the people were incidental. Love schmove. Our corn crop was terrible this year. You’re marrying for maize.

3. Overthrow a Monarchy, Erotically

Ah, but then came the Revolutionary era. Everybody suddenly got cool.

A bunch of stuff was changing all at once. America had gotten crowded; there were more ways to sustain life than farming and acreage. It was no longer so deathly important that the farm of Goodman Figgenbottom share the water rights of Goodman Pundersnoot, by way of their children sharing bodily fluids.

Plus, the idea of “patriarchy” and completely ruling your “subjects” was losing its popularity in an America that was screaming at a king to stay out of its room. Also, bigger towns and more spacious settlements meant it was harder to keep track of people’s private affairs with their privates.

So now that neither parents nor fear of death were choosing spouses, young people began to do it themselves. And when I say “it,” I mean "it" in the Degrassi Junior High sense. Y’know. “IT.”

4. Promise to Stay on Your Side of the Bundling Board

By comparing marriage records with subsequent birth records, historians can tell that by the late 18th century, 30 to 40 percent of American brides were pregnant at their weddings.

Society wasn’t really upset that the girls were pregnant, as long as they got married to the father. But not all men were that honorable, especially since the towns were now drawing in unsupervised, strange men to work in seaports and industry.

Colonial society came up with a fairly ingenious solution.

If you were 17, you might suggest to your strict Christian parents that you’d like to snuggle up with sultry Goodie Sally from across the hog farm. You’d promise to keep your underpants on. And your parents would likely help you arrange it. Which makes modern parents look pretty lame by comparison.

You’ve probably heard of this practice, called “bundling,” where unmarried couples could sleep together in the same bed, sometimes with a plank placed between them (for all the good it would do). Parents weren’t stupid. They knew the kids were likely to have sex. Not necessarily while bundling, but behind the barn, in the meadow, during the corn shuck fest. They planned ahead for it like some parents today stock their son’s skater pants with condoms.

Gone were the days that a girl pointing across a magistrate’s court to a scruffy farm boy was enough to force him to marry her. But with bundling, if the girl should fall pregnant, there would be plenty of witnesses to claim the boy in question had access and opportunity. So he either had to pay up or put a ring on it. No ruination for the girl, no fatherless child, no shame for the parents, and the guy? Well, he got some. Totally worth it.  

5. Hold Hands and Make Empty Promises

Handfasting, or spousing, was another way for a dishonorable young rogue to get lucky. Marriage wasn’t as formal an affair back then as you might think. You didn’t need a license or even a presiding authority. It was acceptable to have a common-law marriage, where you basically held hands and agreed to be married. You could do it anywhere. And as court records of the day show, lots of men chose to do it right in front of a nice big bed with a woman they had no intention of eating breakfast with. Sometimes they hopped the next ship for England and got away with it; sometimes they were caught and escorted by armed guard and enraged father into marital bliss.  

Try one of them, or try them all, and good luck getting lucky like a Patriot this fourth!

Sources for this article were provided by Molly Wolf, Library Liaison to the School of Human Sexuality at Widener University.


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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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