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.