Notes on Oneida community

Passages I highlighted about the Oneida community from Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings. The Oneida Community was a Christian communal society founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York.

“At the community’s peak, three hundred Oneida “Perfectionists” lived an intensely intimate, intellectual existence in a rambling, Italianate mansion. They saw their community as an earthly branch of the Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of portal through which the millennium would come to earth. Under the influence of their utopian forebears, the Perfectionists renounced private property, raised their children collectively, embraced gender equality, perfected a novel form of birth control, experimented with every health fad of their day, pursued rigorous self-improvement, practiced a complex system of free love, and initiated an unprecedented experiment in eugenics.”

…..

Early decision from the founder on cooking:

“When it occurred to him that the practice of eating three hot meals a day subjected women “almost universally to the worst of slavery,” he simply stopped it. The thirty-odd members of the Putney community ate one sit-down meal in the morning and then foraged for themselves from an open pantry “as appetite or fancy may suggest.” The door to the pantry was marked with a card bearing the motto “Health, Comfort, Economy, and Woman’s Rights.””

…..

After the woman he loved married someone else, Noyes decided that “complex marriage” in groups was the proper way for Christians to live. He was a virgin at the time.

“By the 1860s, with three hundred people living at Oneida and Wallingford, the Perfectionists’ struggle against “the marriage system” was going surprisingly well. While moralizing critics described the community as an “orgy” or “brothel” or “harem” or “seraglio” or “whoredom,” the Perfectionists insisted upon their own conservatism. Their erotic delight, they pointed out, came with all the usual pledges and sacrifices of the marriage bed. Any two Oneida lovers, by dint of their membership in the community, were obligated to support each other through sickness and health, to hold all of their wealth in common, and to care for any offspring born of their coupling. . . . Sex, as practiced within the community, was understood as a sacrament—“a more perfect symbol of [a union with Christ] than eating bread and drinking wine,” as Noyes put it.

“Every adult in the community was loosely ranked according to a system of “ascending” and “descending fellowship.” To hasten spiritual growth, novices were encouraged to go to bed with those who were more enlightened. In practice, this meant that the young or recently converted slept with older, more experienced Perfectionists. . . . [such as the founder, Noyes].

“At Oneida, unlike at so many other sexed-up religious enclaves, the May–December loving went both ways. “Spiritually ascendant” older women erotically baptized teenage boys. Given that the mechanics of male continence were difficult for young men to master, receiving their sexual education from postmenopausal women offered one practical benefit: there could be no risk of an unplanned pregnancy.”

Seems to me this still holds benefit for Noyes, though. If the young men are paired with older women, it leaves young women available for older men.

…..

Women in the community designed a costume suited to work:

“The result was a long-sleeved blouse and a matching knee-length skirt worn over loose “pantalets.” They called it “the uniform of a vital society.” After some snickering, all of the women in the community adopted it. This so-called short dress was soon supplemented with elastic sneakers, which, like true utopians, they called “the final shoe.”

…The women at Oneida cut their hair shoulder length or shorter, a style then associated with adolescent girls. While their sisters in the World routinely spent an hour arranging combs, pins, and extensions atop their heads, the women of Oneida boasted that they went directly from bed to the breakfast table. “Any fashion which requires women to devote considerable time to hair-dressing,” they announced in the community paper, “is a degradation and a nuisance.”

“In the 1860s, a group of community women started an “express service” to convey visitors and packages back and forth between the mansion and the nearby train depot. The venture presented local non-Perfectionists with the jarring sight of “unattended” women in sporty dresses and childlike haircuts loading parcels, wrangling horses, and operating a prosperous enterprise.”

…..

“Labor “bees” were common at every utopian colony of the era, but the Perfectionists raised them to an art. They held bees for every large task—brick making, planting, broom corn harvesting, bag stitching, vegetable picking, and fruit preserving. “Working in storm,” as they called it, made tedious jobs go fast and gave the communists an economic edge over their neighbors. Neither “isolated” householders nor wage-paying bosses could quadruple or halve their workforce from day to day. The Circular regularly trumpeted the efficiencies of the system. Four thousand quarts of strawberries were picked in a single day. A barn was raised in a weekend. A large trap order was filled in one night. One “storming company” was tasked with stitching the bindings of nine hundred religious pamphlets. They ran out of printed matter so quickly that they went looking for other things to sew, turning their needles upon a large heap of flour sacks in need of darning. Laboring in “mixed company”—especially when combined with breaks for cake or brief bouts of fiddle-accompanied contra dancing—helped give tiresome undertakings a flirtatious, festal atmosphere.”

…..

“In July 1852, at the height of the Observer-stoked outcry over complex marriage, the communists opened their gates to a skeptical public, inviting people to come in and be impressed. That event, a free “strawberry festival,” was the first of countless subsequent picnics, performances, and concerts, all of which were orchestrated for the pleasure of the World. The outreach worked. The Perfectionists’ upstate neighbors gradually became their best defense against periodic attacks by crusading politicians and churchmen. When the district attorney in Utica agitated for the community’s expulsion, a prominent local businessman wrote Noyes, promising that “the people in this vicinity will not consent to have you disperse.”

. . . .”An illustration on the cover of the magazine Puck depicted a clutch of scowling churchmen gesturing toward the peaceable commune. “Oh, dreadful!” reads the caption. “They dwell in peace and harmony, and have no church scandals. They must be wiped out.””

…..

“A community notice from 1858 declared that “child-bearing, when it is undertaken, should be a voluntary affair, one in which the choice of the mother, and the sympathy of all good influences should concur.”

“The community’s unusual method of birth control was surprisingly effective. Among roughly two hundred sexually busy adults, there was, on average, about one accidental pregnancy each year, a rate that compares favorably with that of modern birth control pills. Those few men who were unable to master male continence were paired with those women who were, in the poignant euphemism of the day, “past the time of life.” In 1852, the Circular boasted that “the increase of population by birth, in our forty families, for the last four years, has been considerably less than the progeny of Queen Victoria alone.””

….

“As the community prospered, the Children’s House became increasingly deluxe. A large, steam-heated playroom was outfitted with indoor seesaws, balance beams, swings, and a miniaturized wood shop in which a group of boys attempted to build themselves a “flying machine.”

. . . .The children conducted their own sort of self-governance. In 1851, they raised their small hands in support of a series of resolutions denouncing their homemade dolls as a medium of “the mothering spirit”: “This doll-spirit that seduces us from Community spirit in regard to helping the family and that prevents us from being in earnest to get an education is the same spirit that seduces women to allow themselves to be so taken up with their children that they have not time to attend to Christ, and get an education for heaven.” After a discussion about their “idolatrous” toys, the children voted to put their dolls to the flame. The little boys were particularly “loud in their clamors for the great massacre.” Following the vote, a group of nine- and ten-year-old girls stripped their dolls of the bloomer-style outfits they had sewn for them and, one by one, tossed the toys into the woodstove. When the burning was over, “all hands rejoiced in the condemnation.””

….

After thirty years of a deliberately limited birthrate and cautious recruitment from outside, Noyes announced the start of a positive eugenics program (“stirpiculture”, from the Latin for “stem,” as “eugenics” wasn’t coined for another twenty years) in 1869.

“The ability to actually achieve “scientific combination”—as opposed to the “promiscuous scrambling” of the World—was opened by the twin innovations of male continence and complex marriage. In hindsight, Noyes’s hat trick of erotic experiments form a chain. Male continence, first inspired by Harriet Noyes’s birthing traumas, created the possibility of complex marriage. And it was complex marriage, the community’s civically oriented ménage à trois-cent, that made their experiment in controlled breeding possible.

For a time, selections were made by a six-member committee that included two Yale-educated physicians. Mostly the selections were left up to Noyes and his inner circle. Like breeders of flowers or dogs, the Perfectionists had to choose which traits they were aiming for. While the intelligence and health of the volunteers were taken into account, the main criterion was a highly subjective notion of spiritual inspiration. On the dubious assumption that good sex makes good babies, mutual attraction between volunteers was considered a plus. Practically speaking, the Perfectionists had their ideal target close at hand. “The existence of Noyes,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “simplified the breeding problem for the Communists, the question as to what sort of men they should strive to breed being settled at once by the desirability of breeding another Noyes.” Not surprisingly, Noyes personally fathered a sixth of all the “stirpicults.” Ultimately, a total of fifty-three women and thirty-eight men were selected. They pledged themselves as “ ‘living sacrifices’ to God and true Communism” and went upstairs in pairs.

“Between 1869 and 1879, forty-five “stirpicults” were born. They were raised and nursed by their biological mothers for nine months and then transferred to the nursery of the Children’s House, where they were cared for by specially selected teachers and generally fussed over by the entire community. The biological parents renounced all rights of parenthood.

“In 1891, after the breakup of the community, Anita Newcomb McGee, a final-year medical student at Johns Hopkins who specialized in gynecology, studied the stirpicults for a report in the American Anthropologist. By then, the eldest were twenty-two. McGee found that most of them had been impressive students, with both boys and girls earning scholarships to top universities. With a single exception, all were perfectly healthy. Many were unusually tall. They were highly literate, and when they convened at the Mansion House each summer, they entertained themselves with debate competitions and concerts. With the exception of Noyes and a few other lawyers and clergymen, the volunteer parents had all originally been farmers, laborers, and craftspeople. All but one of the stirpicults (a machinist) pursued nonmanual professions. Among the eldest boys in the group—those for whom a career could reasonably be predicted in 1891—there were medical students, law students, businessmen, a math prodigy, and a successful musician. The eldest girls, in the estimation of Dr. McGee, were also bound for intellectual careers. One was a scholar of Greek at a women’s college; another was studying the new kindergarten system. Of course, much, if not all, of the stirpicults’ success in life can be attributed to their carefully administered upbringing in the Children’s House and the intellectual, self-improving tenor of the community in which they were raised.

Ironically, the stirpicults’ main “failing” was a distinct lack of faith.”

One interesting thing about this is that it goes against a lot of modern findings that institutions are terrible places to raise young children 24/7. It seems that a community of loving and motivated adults was able to do a very good job at institutional childrearing. I don’t know much about kibbutizim but that would also be an interesting area to look about this.

….

Ultimately the community disbanded after failing to find a suitable leader to replace the aging Noyes (he tried to install his son, who was a flop.) Many younger members wanted to try monogamous marriage. Noyes fled to Canada in 1879 after it looked likely that the town would charge him with statutory rape, and the community ended complex marriage at his recommendation. The community lasted two more years before disbanding. The transition from group marriage to monogamy was extremely difficult, as members who had thrown themselves into arrangements radically different from mainstream nineteenth-century society now tried to live in a halfway arrangement neither here nor there, in the blended family to end all blended families.

In the same year, an unpopular ex-member assassinated president Garfield. I’d be curious to know whether this association, even by  a member the community found unpleasant and unstable, would have done them in if they hadn’t already been disbanding.

….

The book covers five American utopian movements, of which I found Oneida and the Shakers the most interesting. If you liked these passages, I’d recommend the rest of the book.

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