Part 1 - The Oneida Community - one of many 'utopian' communities formed in the early 1880's along with Mormons and Amana Inspirationists

I love research and love reading.  The topics can literally be anything and almost everything.  I have notebooks and 3-ring binders full of hand written notes and printed off research papers...  simply for my own enjoyment.  I have been researching the history and modern day Mormons (The Latter Day Saints) for almost five years now.  Fascinating really.  But tonight I stumbled up on a whole new group - and I'm enjoying finding a lot of information, educational articles and historical documentation about this interesting group as well;  The Oneida Community.

Previously, had you mentioned the word "Oneida" to me I would have simply thought of the silverware manufactured under that brand name.  Now I now 'the rest of the story' because yes, indeed!  This crazy little ground root society of fanatics were force to disband their utopian community when the leader was going to be arrested for statutory rape (the community believed in 'free love' with anyone and everyone; and children that hit puberty were immediately schooled in sex by those in the 50-60 age group).  The leaders son attempted to lead the community after his father took off for Canada, but he was not made of leadership material like his father and soon the community disbanded and divided up their holdings into joint stock; which survived to be the Oneida corporation - which (finally circling back around to my original sentence in this paragraph....) is the silverware company I knew of.


PART ONE in the Oneida Community Series
Sourced below if you wish to read it in its entirity

Excerpts taken from

Syracuse University Library
Department of Special Collections

Awakening which engrossed much of colonial America in the early 18th Century. By 1790, America had realized its independence from England with a new sense of unity which was increasingly compromised by a growth in political partisanship.

A shift in how social change was effected was taking place. Religious observance in general, was on the decline. The religious values that had traditionally defined the New England colonial mission to 'convert all nations to Christianity', became, in the words of Nathan O. Hatch, "diluted with, and often subordinate to, the commitment to America as a new seat of liberty."

A new understanding of how the spiritual transformation of the individual might bring

about change was taking place. Conventional logic followed that if men and women were good, then good institutions, good government, and good society would result. The vehicle for change at this time was the religious revival. Traveling evangelists were preaching repentance to all who would listen. In return, they promised admission to Heaven for any individual who would sincerely repent his sins.

The revivalists' emphasis was on the spiritual conversion of the individual in order to effect social change on a grander scale. The reform groups generally fell into two categories: the "Millenarians" and the "Utopians". Millenialists such as the "Millerites" and Seventh Day Adventists, believed that the Earth was coming to an end as they knew it and a new age of peace and harmony would commence for all believers. The Millenarians carried word to the people through their proselytizing strategies in order to gain converts. By contrast, the Utopians believed they could initiate change by creating new societies in miniature. The utopian strategy behind building a 'model community of believers' was to gain converts by good example.

Some utopian societies withdrew from the outside world altogether, such as the Shakers. Others were able to achieve the delicate balance of social and economic interaction with society, such as the Mormons, Amana Inspirationists, and the Oneida Perfectionists.

Geographically, the greatest emotional and religious excitement occurred in New York State. There was an area in the very central region of the state that the famous revivalist Charles Grandison Finney called "a burnt district", better known as "the burned over district". The phrase is a metaphor meant to describe the beaten path traveled by so many seeking a new way of life. This geographic area was defined by the route of the Erie Canal, as it followed from Albany to west of Buffalo. Some groups, such as the Mormons and Amana Inspirationists, passed through the district on their way to the western frontier.

John Humphrey Noyes and the members of the Oneida Community were dissident idealists who looked upon the New World as a potential paradise. They belong to a class of 19th Century communistic societies which believed in collective ownership and organization. The Shakers, Mormons, Fourierists, and Amana Inspirationists are the most well-known of the utopian religious societies of this period.

 Noyes traveled the country preaching "Perfectionism" and editing "militant" religious magazines and newspapers devoted to this new doctrine. In 1839, John Humphrey organized a 'Bible class" of friends and family. The group evolved to become the "Putney Community" in 1846. It was among this group of 30 trusted and loyal friends and family that Noyes formulated his plan for communal living. However, objections to the radical religious group grew in Putney within the next two years and by 1847, the Putney Perfectionists were forced to seek another location.
The doctrine of Perfectionism had become quite well known by 1845 and had won over a substantial number of worthy and influential church members in New England, New York, and New Jersey. Small groups of believers were scattered throughout these areas. One such band was gathering at Oneida Creek, New York and they invited the Putney exiles to join them.

By 1849, several families from NY, northern Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut had joined the new "Oneida Community" for a total of 87 members. Unlike the millenarians and certain communal groups such as the Shakers and Mormons, the Oneida Perfectionists did not consider it their business "�to proselyte mankind by superficial efforts, but to present a working model of Communism, and leave its effect on others to the silent action of truth and the Providence of God."

During the first decade of the experiment, the Community pursued the pastoral and Biblical ideal of converting their frontier settlement into a fruitful garden. They were intent upon making horticulture their subsistence. While they gained some success at fruit horticulture, the upstate New York climate was not conducive to major fruit production and markets were distant and hard to reach at the time.

They survived during the lean early years but were gradually turning to any kind of minor industry that would keep them afloat. In addition to their sale of nursery stock and fruits and vegetables in season, they began making a variety of items such as rustic furniture, leather travel bags, men's cloth slippers, palm leaf hats, scuffle hoes, wheel spokes, mop handles, and steel animal traps. Where they had proudly and prominently named Horticulture their leading business of subsistence in every issue of the Circular, by 1855 the products of their horticulture department were listed alongside all the other manufactured items and services for sale.

By the beginning of the second decade in 1860, John Humphrey Noyes and the Community were developing a true business character. As their manufacturing and sales enterprise grew, so too did their organizational abilities. Practically every branch of Community activity was operated by committees: Aside from the Central Board and finance committees and various clerical offices, the following were appointed: committees to receive visitors; for the trap department, machine shop, blacksmithing, building department, shoe shop, bag department, printing office, kitchen, farm and dairy; fruit and garden; teaming, stables, silk department, bee keepers, soap and vinegar, poultry keeper�compost manager, commissioner of highways, steward, greenhouse, grist mill, schools �1
The decade of the 1860's tested the Community's skill as they courageously experimented with new ideas and gave up unprofitable ventures. By 1870, they were financially secure enough to concentrate their efforts on the three most successful business departments: Steel Traps, Silk Thread, and Fruit Preserves.

By 1870 there were more than 280 members living at Oneida and the Wallingford, Connecticut branch and the Community was experiencing unprecedented growth, financial security, and general well-being. They were constantly receiving applications for admission which they had to reject because:
    � the parent Community at Oneida is full. Its buildings are adapted to a certain number, and it wants no more. The kind of men and women who are likely to make the communities grow, spiritually and financially, are scarce, and have to be sifted out slowly and cautiously�.these Communities are not asylums for pleasure seekers or persons who merely want a home and a living.2

In 1875, John Humphrey Noyes was sixty-four years old. He was devoting more of his time to writing, was less actively involved in the day to day running of Community affairs, and was growing increasingly deaf. The question of his successor was a serious matter and one not easily resolved.
The Community had been experiencing the first signs of internal dissent as the younger generation came of age and began taking leadership roles in the various committees and departments. Several of the young men had been sent off to college. Some of them returned to the community excited with the new ideas of Scientific Positivism and business strategies. In general, the younger generation held less strong religious convictions than the original joiners of the Community. The result was that although they had grown up as firm believers in Christ and the Bible, they had no real faith in communism. And as a class, the younger women and men desired more monogamous relations.
In 1877, John Humphrey Noyes addressed the Community on the question of his successor:
    In this last stage of my labor I find myself in front of the last problem of Community-building, which is the problem of successorship; how to carry a Community through the change from one generation to another. I must work out this problem, or leave my work unfinished and even in danger of coming to naught. The Community did not form itself by getting together and choosing a president. I was the president from the beginning, called not by vote of the members but by the will of God.13
John Humphrey's first born son, Theodore, was expected to follow in his father's place. However, a trial seven-month period as leader of the Community, proved Theodore was unsuccessful at guiding Community affairs, especially in religious matters. At the same time the Community was trying to solve its internal problems, the external
world was applying pressure in an attempt to sway public opinion against the Perfectionist society. The local clergy, led by a Professor Mears of nearby Hamilton College, enlisted the help of the Presbyterian Synod to lead an attack against the Oneida Perfectionists as an institution "subversive to the family�and in opposition to Christian morality". Previous attempts over the years by Professor Mears and others to discredit the Oneida Community had faded in light of the Community's good business record and general good will and hospitality.
The charges brought against Mr. Noyes in 1879 were more severe and he was forced to retreat or risk the future of the Community. In June, 1879, Noyes left Oneida for Niagara Falls, Canada where the Community was in the process of moving its tableware business from the Wallingford, Connecticut branch. Under John Humphrey's guidance, the members at Oneida set up a new Administrative Council. Consisting of ten men and nine women, the Council was to serve as a spiritual and disciplinary body to conduct the domestic and social affairs of the Community.

By August of 1879 the community announced its abandonment of Complex Marriage and couples began to marry in the conventional manner.

The following year was a tumultuous one as factions developed around various proposed ideas for reorganization. A commission was formed to propose a "Joint Stock" plan to decide how to divide the community's property among the members. The "Agreement to Divide and Reorganize" was adopted in November, 1880. The Community was reorganized as a "limited liability" company and assumed the name "Oneida Community, Limited". The stock was divided among the members in the proportion of the number of years' service which each individual had contributed to creating the wealth of the Community. Specific provisions were made for children, the elderly, and the invalid. It also offered the guarantee of support for life to those who preferred it to the ownership of stock.

Many of the former Community members remained in the Mansion House buildings living much as conventional families did. They continued to enjoy the advantages of communal food preparation and dining as well as the social comforts and mutual respect from many years of living together.

The trap and fruit preserve business continued into the first quarter of the twentieth Century when they concentrated all efforts on the silverware industry. In 1940, they joined the stock exchange and dropped the "Community" name to become simply "Oneida Limited".

Oneida Limited is a well recognized name in today's market. It has long enjoyed a reputation as a prominent manufacturer of fine silver and stainless tableware in both domestic and foreign markets and as a successful profit-sharing enterprise.

  1. The Circular, April 4, 1861.
  2. The Circular, July 10, 1871.