The Oneida Community
Introduction to Utiopian Communities: In the first part of the 19th century, more than 100,000 individuals formed utopian communities in an effort to create perfect societies. The idea of a perfect society intertwined with communalism can be traced back to Plato’s Republic, the book of Acts in the New Testament, and the work of Sir Thomas More.
As 19th century America grew larger, richer, and more diverse, it was also trying to achieve a culture that was distinct and not imitative of any in Europe. At the same time, the thirst for individual improvement had local communities creating debating clubs, library societies, and literary associations for the purpose of sharing interesting and provocative ideas. Maybe, people speculated, if any society were completely reorganized, it could be regenerated and, ultimately, perfected. Originally a Greek word for an imaginary place where everyone and everything is perfect, was sought in America through the creation of model communities within the greater society.
The years 1820 to 1860 saw the heydey of this movement with the creation of numerous utopian communities. Utopian communities in 19th-century America were considered by many to herald a new age in human civilization. Often led by charismatic leaders with high religious or secular moral ideals, these settlements experimented wildly with different models of government, marriage, labor and wealth.
The Oneida Community in New York
The Oneida Community (1848-1880) was a religiously based, socialist group, dedicated to living as one family and to sharing all property, work, and love. They called their 93,000 square foot home the Mansion House. Today, this National Historic Landmark houses a museum with permanent and changing exhibitions,
The Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus’s millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism). The Oneida Community practiced Communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions), Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship. There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney and Cambridge, Vermont. The community’s original 87 members grew to 172 by February 1850, 208 by 1852, and 306 by 1878. The branches were closed in 1854 except for the Wallingford branch, which operated until devastated by a tornado in 1878. The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, and eventually became the giant silverware company Oneida Limited.
Even though the community reached a maximum population of about 300, it had a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections.
The manufacturing of silverware, the sole remaining industry, began in 1877, relatively late in the life of the Community, and still exists. Secondary industries included the manufacture of leather travel bags, the weaving of palm frond hats, the construction of rustic garden furniture, game traps, and tourism.
All Community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities. Women tended to do much of the domestic duties. Although more skilled jobs tended to remain with an individual member (the financial manager, for example, held his post throughout the life of the Community), Community members rotated through the more unskilled jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries. As Oneida thrived, it began to hire outsiders to work in these positions as well. They were a major employer in the area, with approximately 200 employees by 1870.
The Oneida community believed strongly in a system of free love known as complex marriage, where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon. Unlike 20th century social movements, the Oneidans did not seek consequence-free sex for pleasure, but believed that, because the natural outcome of intercourse was pregnancy, raising children should be a communal responsibility. Women over the age of 40 were to act as sexual “mentors” to adolescent boys, as these relationships had minimal chance of conceiving. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men. Likewise, older men often introduced young women to sex. Noyes often used his own judgment in determining the partnerships that would form, and would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hopes that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the non-devout.
Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting. The goal was to eliminate undesirable character traits. Various contemporary sources contend that Noyes himself was the subject of criticism, although less often and of probably less severe criticism than the rest of the community. Charles Nordhoff witnessed the following criticism of member “Charles:”
Charles sat speechless, looking before him; but as the accusations multiplied, his face grew paler, and drops of perspiration began to stand on his forehead. The remarks I have reported took up about half an hour; and now, each one in the circle having spoken, Mr. Noyes summed up. He said that Charles had some serious faults; that he had watched him with some care; and that he thought the young man was earnestly trying to cure himself. He spoke in general praise of his ability, his good character, and of certain temptations he had resisted in the course of his life. He thought he saw signs that Charles was making a real and earnest attempt to conquer his faults; and as one evidence of this he remarked that Charles had lately come to him to consult him upon a difﬁcult case in which he had had a severe struggle, but had in the end succeeded in doing right. “In the course of what we call stirpiculture,” said Noyes, “Charles, as you know, is in the situation of one who is by and by to become a father. Under these circumstances, he has fallen under the too common temptation of selﬁsh love, and a desire to wait upon and cultivate an exclusive intimacy with the woman who was to bear a child through him. This is an insidious temptation, very apt to attack people under such circumstances; but it must nevertheless be struggled against.” Charles, he went on to say, had come to him for advice in this case, and he (Noyes) had at ﬁrst refused to tell him any thing, but had asked him what he thought he ought to do; that after some conversation, Charles had determined, and he agreed with him, that he ought to isolate himself entirely from the woman, and let another man take his place at her side; and this Charles had accordingly done, with a most praiseworthy spirit of self-sacriﬁce. Charles had indeed still further taken up his cross, as he had noticed with pleasure, by going to sleep with the smaller children, to take charge of them during the night. Taking all this in view, he thought Charles was in a fair way to become a better man, and had manifested a sincere desire to improve, and to rid himself of all selﬁsh faults.
Editor’s Note: A digital copy of the 1867 “Hand-Book of the Oneida Community” that contains on outline of the community’s constitution and doctrines is available to review at the Syracuse University Library, Department of Special Collections, Oneida Community Collection: http://library.syr.edu/digital/collections/h/Hand-bookOfTheOneidaCommunity/
The community lasted until John Humphrey Noyes attempted to pass the leadership thereof to his son, Theodore Noyes. This move was unsuccessful because Theodore was an agnostic and lacked his father’s talent for leadership. The move also divided the community, as Communitarian John Towner attempted to wrest control for himself.
Within the commune, there was a debate about when children should be initiated into sex, and by whom. There was also much debate about its practices as a whole. The founding members were aging or deceased, and many of the younger communitarians desired to enter into exclusive, traditional marriages.
The capstone to all these pressures was the harassment campaign of Professor John Mears of Hamilton College. He called for a protest meeting against the Oneida Community; it was attended by forty-seven clergymen. John Humphrey Noyes was informed by trusted adviser Myron Kinsley that a warrant for his arrest on charges of statutory rape was imminent. Noyes fled the Oneida Community Mansion House and the country in the middle of a June night in 1879, never to return to the United States. Shortly afterward, he wrote to his followers from Niagara Falls, Ontario, recommending that the practice of complex marriage be abandoned.
Complex marriage was abandoned in 1879 following external pressures and the community soon broke apart, with some of the members reorganizing as a joint-stock company. Marital partners normalized their status with the partners with whom they were cohabiting at the time of the re-organization. Over 70 Community members entered into a traditional marriage in the following year.
During the early 20th century, the new company, Oneida Community Limited, narrowed their focus to silverware. The animal trap business was sold in 1912, the silk business in 1916, and the canning discontinued as unprofitable in 1915.
The joint-stock corporation still exists and is a major producer of cutlery under the brand name “Oneida Limited”. In September 2004 Oneida Limited announced that it would cease all U.S. manufacturing operations in the beginning of 2005, ending a 124-year tradition. The company continues to design and market products that are manufactured overseas. The company has been selling off its manufacturing facilities. Most recently, the distribution center in Sherrill, New York was closed. Administrative offices remain in the Oneida area.
The last original member of the community, Ella Florence Underwood (1850–1950), died on June 25, 1950 in Kenwood, New York near Oneida, New York.
Source: Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneida_Community. (Accessed: 8/18/2015).