Valentine’s Day the old-fashioned New England way

by Dorothee Kocks
KEENE, NH — In February, 1779, Ebenezer Bragg began to spend the night with Abigail Washburn. Many people in Keene knew about this unmarried liaison – indeed, “girling of it” and “afrolicking” were common practices, and hinted at much more than the shared beds, or bundling, that was an expedient of a time with few inns.
Indeed, Bragg’s regular overnights with Abigail provoked jealous journal entries by another young man in the village, who had hopes of his own with fair Abigail, not to mention Hephzibah Crossfield and other young ladies of the town. Abner Sanger, a young farmer, privately slandered Ebenezer as “Lord Debauche” and “Lord Bugger.” Sanger was known “staying with” two girls at once in the summer, so his journal entries struck a historian as envy rather than moral disapproval.
As lovers celebrate Valentine’s Day, those aching for a return to traditional romance might be surprised to learn that love in the first years of our country was pretty steamy. By some estimates, one in three New England brides was pregnant in the early Republic, and young unmarried couples often kept their trysts under the same roof as their pragmatic parents, who made sure they knew who the father of any future child was.
The Puritans are famous for careful regulation of their community’s moral behavior, especially regarding sexuality. The success of these regulations, though, started to wane in the 1700s. New, feverish religious revival meetings featured “love feasts,” and celebrated a sensualized spirituality. Transformative ideas of individual freedom escaped the political sphere, getting very personal. Add to these larger trends the calculation that as many as 60 percent of Americans may have been under the age of 20 in post-revolutionary America, and next thing you know, you’ve got an era of free love.
We know about the Americans’ intimate habits because couples with babies delivered seven months after the wedding had to admit their sin publicly so their children could be accepted in church. Historian Richard Godbeer painstakingly tracks these records in Sexual Revolution in Early America, in which he tells the story of Ebenezer Bragg. Meanwhile, Joyce Appleby’s Inheriting the Revolution takes advantage of the new Americans’ mania for publishing to pry out sexual mores. Americans wrote poetry, diaries, and autobiographies, and they founded newspapers at a rate unseen before. At the same time, Europeans came to observe the new American like creatures in a zoo, and wrote about their findings.
Our stereotype of early New England firmly establishes a repressed culture, and this image comes in part from novels like the Scarlet Letter where Hester Pryne wears her letter ‘A’ for adultery. The famous novel, though, was written during the rise of Victorian ideas, with its own hankering for repression.
Many factors combined to create the loosening of sexual mores. The sons of New England gentleman no longer could expect to receive an inheritance of land, as the parcels had been divided and subdividing for generations by the time of the early Republic. Parents’ financial authority slipped, and new entrepreneurial opportunities allowed young white men to walk away from their fathers’ control.
Meanwhile, the thunderclap of revolutionary ideas, especially a right to happiness, affected men and women alike. A new era in publishing replaced the dry, humorless self-help of religious elders with racy novels like The Coquette. Said to be the third book people bought, after Webster’s and the Bible, The Coquette cast a sympathetic eye on a young woman caught between a boring but upright minister and a handsome rakish Southerner. It did not turn out well for the heroine, but neither did the strict rules survive such intimate scrutiny.
Ironically, one of the ways a greater permissiveness took hold was because of a new social institution established by the Puritan elders as they grasped for control: the singing school. Puritan sermons emphasized the consequences of sin, with images of fire and brimstone moving people to the kind of paroxysms of fear typical of horror movies today. Those charged sermons though were contradicted by the psalm singing during the service. Most people didn’t have songbooks, didn’t know the words, didn’t learn musical notation – so singing in church was a decidedly improvisational affair. People twirled their notes in a way the elders found quite contradictory with the stern reckoning they were after.
To stop all this noodling around with music, the elders instituted singing schools. The only place to meet, though, that was warm enough in winter and big enough to hold the crowd, was the local tavern. And the people who came to learn were mostly young people. Both sexes. The songs tended to be old folk tunes and the singing masters struggled to get the tavern crowd to switch from the old, quite gamey lyrics to the scriptures imposed on them. Meanwhile, beer flowed.
The Puritan elders soon realized their mistake but it was too late. Singing schools became one of the most popular entertainments of the latter 18th century, and one can imagine many a Valentine celebrated there.
For those who want to old-time romance, the type of singing that loosed the bounds of propriety in the early Republic today still exists. It’s called ‘shape note singing” or sometimes Sacred Harp singing, and there are regular ways to join in. Go to for more information.
Salt Lake City’s Dorothee Kocks is a former resident of North Berwick, Maine, is the author of The Glass Harmonica: A Sensualist’s Tale, published by in January, 2011. The novel takes place largely in Portsmouth, NH in the early 1800s. She invites comments at

3 Responses to Valentine’s Day the old-fashioned New England way

  1. Shelley Williams says:

    Great post! I honestly hadn’t a clue of early America’s permissiveness.

  2. Fasinating! Each generation seems to think it invented sex, that their elders are unthinkably repressed, and that their ancestors must have been created by spontaneous generation or divine intervention–anything but erotic embrace. Thank you for giving us a view into this aspect of real life in the 18th Century.

  3. What a terrific post. I learned a lot–but was also, in a way, not surprised. Those poor Puritans…

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