Before it had its brands, America had its utopias. In the 1840s, there was a proliferation of them, but not much in the way of variety. A few dozen communes established themselves across the country, nearly all of them organized along principles of a secular, provincial, and self-reliant socialism, inspired by the recent importation of Fourierism to America from Europe. Two of the most famous ones were the Massachusetts transcendentalist communities Fruitlands and Brook Farm, reactionaries against the acceleration of capitalism and its main selling point, self-interest.
The Oneida community in upstate New York offered something different: a good bargain on a hodgepodge of so-called American values. In Oneida: From Free Love Utopia To The Well-Set Table—An American Story, Ellen Wayland-Smith recounts the tortuous history of a utopian community that kept its name for more than 150 years, while changing what it stood for many times. Historians have tended to focus on the sexual politics during the first couple decades of Oneida, a community founded on the cherished maneuver of coitus interruptus and largely conceived in the mind of a 26-year-old virgin. An easy-access, accidental proto-feminism ensued, where women were encouraged to have multiple partners, cropped hair, and jobs in the community, rather than children. (Of course their options were also limited: falling in love, for instance, was highly discouraged and referred to as “sticking.”)
But there’s a great deal more to Oneida’s history and its strange tussle with the times—its uncanny way of being both ahead of them and behind—that Wayland-Smith uncovers. The first incarnation of Oneida believed in Christian Perfectionism and communal capitalism; in the majesty of the telegraph and the sacredness of animal magnetism. Sleeping around was an act of love for God that supercharged human energy with enough electricity “to overcome death itself,” according to its founder, John Humphrey Noyes. It got weird.
Oneidans became deeply immersed in a communal eugenics experiment (child-bearing was not kept completely off the table), got rich off its capitalist production of silverware, were early adopters of national advertising campaigns, and, eventually, took their company public. In 2006, the group’s final label, Oneida Incorporated, went bankrupt.
Wayland-Smith, a writing instructor at the University of Southern California, has some special claim to this story, as she’s a direct descendant of John Humphrey Noyes. Growing up, she spent summers visiting the Kenwood community, where children of the utopia, who went on to run its company, still live. Her rendition of Oneida’s history draws heavily from journals of those who participated in it, including John Humphrey, articles published in the community paper, The Circular, and a history of the community written by the novelist Walter Evans in 1947, and commissioned by the company board. An intimate, quirky family portrait emerges, with the spotlight on its patriarch.
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Wayland-Smith has a keen eye for irreverent details that showcase her firm command of white, American, Christian, and family values, and the hypocrisy therein through the ages, without straightforwardly critiquing it. She’s a feminist, but coy about it; her tendency is to allow the stray dry or sardonic comment on transparent men and tawdry advertising schemes to stand in for any grand, historical synthesis. She lets Oneida’s history take shape around an archive of capricious desires, and in doing so creates an inviting space for the cohabitation of seemingly disparate American movements and ideologies. “What a strange, dreamlike place must America have been,” Wayland-Smith writes, “if, for a brief space of time in the 1840s and 1850s, free love and industrial prosperity, communism and capitalism, women’s lib and millennial Christianity appeared to share a sunny future together?” But if the first few decades of Oneida’s operations seem a tangle of contradictions, it’s only because this particular utopia was designed to satisfy the physical and psychic desires of a single man, John Humphrey Noyes. And though Wayland-Smith never says it explicitly, her book shows that Oneida’s eventual championing of the free market is compatible with its earlier doctrine of free love when one considers that the fierce desire of men to feel competent bankrolled both. And, really, what could be more American than that?
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Oneida’s origin story is of the classic boy-meets-girl variety—except the girl never knew it. After graduating from his opulent, Brattleboro, Vermont, upbringing, Noyes bounced around, from Dartmouth to Congress to Yale Divinity School. By the time he’d turned 22, Noyes was living in Lower Manhattan, penniless and out of his mind. The budding prophet spent some of this time sleeping on benches in the Battery and sermonizing to sex workers. He had gone there to become a writer, and ended up adopting (and disowning) many virulent strains of spirituality along his way, like metempsychosis and the belief that he was Satan incarnate.
He returned to Vermont. Then on to New Haven, again, where he became obsessed with a woman he had converted to Perfectionism some years before, but who had since defected: Abigail Merwin. She rejected his advances and married another man while Noyes took up with the idea that he would have her as his “spiritual wife” in the afterlife, a popular notion with the New York Perfectionists of the day. There they would have “angel sex,” the only position left to take when your life is behind you.
Wayland-Smith posits that it was because of his jealousy and lack of sexual follow-through in his early 20s that Noyes would establish Oneida as a space free of romantic rivalry more than a decade later, in 1848. It’s a convincing psychological portrait of Noyes, whose search for self-justification never ceased to find fads to glom onto. Noyes comes off in her rendition as perfectly suited for the role of utopian leader: full of sperm and self-righteousness, with no outlet for either. Wayland-Smith refers to Oneida as a society “jerry-rigged to house a fragile ego,” and it’s a fair estimation too of the sexual mores therein. When the time came for Oneidan girls to become intimate with the physics of free love, typically not long after they reached puberty, it was Noyes who would initiate them.
Oneida’s fail-safe engine had always been lust, and not just for flesh. “Everywhere one looked,” writes Wayland-Smith, “Noyes asserted—from the law of chemical attraction to the law of gravity—the overriding principle ruling nature’s operations was the ‘law of attraction,’ a brutish ‘craving element’ or ‘tendency [of things] to seize and appropriate to themselves other things.’” Decades after Italian scientist Luigi Galvani’s discovery of animal electricity and the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a romantic belief in the life-giving properties of bioelectromagnetics persisted. Noyes hitched this scientific trend to his long-held notion that Christians could shirk original sin in their lifetime by achieving a perfect holiness. Creative assertions naturally followed, like that Christ was a “fluid” but also possessed, “a battery of nervous power.” Sex was the surest way to access this divine hook-up and become absolutely perfect. Another sanctimonious reason to fuck.
Noyes crisscrossed transmissions of contemporary thought until they supported the community’s business endeavors too. By 1854, Oneida had several dozen members and a failed fruit-farm business on its hands. The community decided to embark on a journey through free-market capitalism—a trap-making factory built in 1855 led to moderate financial success and some bourgeois comforts, like croquet. Noyes rushed to explain, “Money-making is the soul of the world,” that Christ’s energy could circulate through the market if they took some precautions—chiefly that they rely upon a system of “industrial communism,” using free labor from within the community and sharing the profits. A few years later, the community was hiring wage laborers for their factory and to do domestic work.
Oneida began its lucrative and long-standing production of silverware in 1877. By this time, Noyes’s influence in the community had waned considerably as Christianity and unbridled numbers of sexual partners fell out of favor with the younger generation (not to mention the public charges of impropriety against him). His eldest son Pierrepont emerged as the new ideologue of the group. In 1880, Oneida made the official transformation from a community to a company and renamed itself Oneida Community, Limited. By 1935, the booming silverware business would remove “Community” from its brand name as well.
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Oneida was initially a quixotic product of manly desire—a fantasy realm it would come to trade on when it transformed into a capitalist corporation. It’s laughably obvious how a dream of the liberated woman can be perfect practice for dreaming a servile one, provided the purpose of both is to convince the consumer he isn’t dreaming at all. By the early 20th century, Oneida Community, Limited had become skilled at manufacturing patriarchal wish-fulfillment in its advertising campaigns. The company tapped into a family-values morality to convince people to buy its products, as exemplified with its post-war “Home For Keeps” campaign. It generated a Norman Rockwell aesthetic and ultraconservative copy that still managed to contain vestiges of Oneida’s socialist past, such as, “Community—because girls with love in their hearts have homes on their minds.”
In her chapter on Pierrepont Noyes, who helmed Oneida’s advertising scheme, Wayland-Smith looks at depictions of the slick and unscrupulous salesman (or confidence man) in early-20th-century America. She cites a passage from the 1920 YMCA Standard Course in Salesmanship which formulates the power of suggestion as a kind of spiritual aphorism: “The mind can hardly be said ever to choose what it will believe.” Wayland-Smith doesn’t elaborate too much on what this might mean, how the projects of utopia-building and moneymaking might be connected. Still, associations spring to mind as one picks up the cadence of the community’s most prominent personalities. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a guru of the newly mainstreamed Silicon Valley tech utopians, has stated publicly, “Even having a bad plan is better than no plan at all.” This seems like something John Humphrey would be afraid to say out loud.
In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde wrote, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” I don’t read this too figuratively; it’s an inducement of the reader to believe her political ideals are so strongly possible that they might as well already exist (the way “Make America Great Again” was always already synonymous with “America Is Great”). Or, more realistically still, his political ideals. “Utopia” is famously translatable to “the place that cannot exist,” yet it trades on the promise of progress, of someday getting there. These are the promises of prophets and politicians, and advertising exploits their underlying incoherence. Reading Wayland-Smith’s history of Oneida, I became more ambivalent about utopia as a placeholder—a specific destination for satisfied, gratified, perfect people—and began to imagine it instead as a mode of transportation. If you believe the world inside your head should be replicated outside of it, then utopia will get you out the door in the morning. All it takes is buying into an America where you too can have a country of your own.