Love and Silverware: The Oneida Community

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

The Oneida Community wasn’t the first, or last, American group to practice free love and communism. But it might have been the most successful.

The 19th century was a golden age in America for utopian communities—model societies based on religious or social ideals. One of the longest-lived of these experiments was the Oneida Community, founded by an ex-minister named John Humphrey Noyes.


Noyes had been asked to leave Yale Divinity School in 1834 after he began preaching the doctrine of Perfectionism -a school of thought that held (counter to Calvinist dogma) that it was possible for Christians to completely free themselves from sin. In the late 1830s, Noyes organized a Perfectionist community in Putney, Vermont, under a system he called “Bible Communism.” Gossip about some of the community’s unorthodox practices drew the attention of authorities, and Noyes and his followers thought it best to relocate. They moved to Oneida, New York, where they founded a new commune in 1848.


In the Oneida Community, under Bible Communism, property was held in common and labor was shared by all. Children were raised communally. Members spent much time in Bible study and religious discussion. To help rid themselves of spiritual failings, members underwent “mutual criticism” sessions, during which their faults were pointed out by a committee or by the entire group. But sexy things were shared as well—Oneida’s alternative lifestyle also featured something Noyes called “complex marriage.”

Noyes held that monogamous marriage and the nuclear family structure were against God’s rules of unselfish love for all human kind. He also believed that sex was not simply a procreative act but a sacred expression of love that could bring one closer to God. As he wrote to a friend in 1837, “In a holy community, there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restrained by law, than why eating and drinking should be—and there is as little occasion for shame in the one case as in the other.” To that end, he instituted complex marriage, which meant that every man in the community was considered to be married to every woman.


So how sexy was complex marriage, really? It wasn’t the orgiastic free-for-all that some prurient outsiders imagined. Intercourse was regulated to a large extent by community leaders, who discouraged couples from forming exclusives attachments. Men and woman were generally free to accept or reject a sexual proposition, which had to be communicated by a go-between. Jealousy was a no-no. A tradition called “ascending fellowship” required young men and women to pair up with their spiritually superior elders for instruction and mentoring. Noyes himself often initiated girls into sexual intercourse, sometimes when the girls were as young as 13.


How did Oneidans prevent unplanned pregnancies? Noyes developed a form of contraception he called “male continence” -basically, a prohibition of ejaculation. Men were taught to master this (undoubtedly frustrating and not always effective) technique before they were allowed to have sexual relations with fertile women. In the mid-1860s, Noyes, who had been studying Darwin’s theories, began a kind go eugenics program called “stirpiculture,” in which reproduction was regulated by Noyes or a committee. Apparently, Noyes had a high opinion of his own genes, since he fathered nine of the breeding programs’s babies himself.


Did complex marriage mesh well with human nature? According to Spencer Klaw, author of Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community, “At Oneida, as in the outside world, love and sex could still be a source of great anguish.” Letters and diaries researched by Klaw reveal that people fell in love and felt jealousy despite their best efforts. Some resented the rule of ascending fellowship and wanted to be freer to choose their own lovers. However, Noyes’ followers did their best to make complex marriage work. And the lifestyle had benefits beyond variety and guilt-free sex: Male continence freed women from unwanted pregnancy, and skill at lovemaking was prized. According to Hilda Herrick Noyes, a grandniece of Noyes, “The men prided themselves in giving women their orgasm.”


Yet another unusual aspect of the Oneida Community, as far as utopian communities went, was its financial stability. After an early failed attempt at raising fruit, the community found success in a number of ventures, including the manufacture of beaver traps, silk thread, and flatware. By the mid 1860s, the community was making a profit, and by the 1870s, it was running mills and factories that were staffed by hired outsiders as wells Oneidans.


The community’s domestic arrangements continued to draw criticism from religious leaders, but the Oneidans’ integrity, piety, and industry won them the approval of their neighbors and business partners. Tourists from all over the United States and Europe came to visit the commune, and most came away with the impression of a happy, healthy, and well-ordered group. At its height, the Oneida Community had more than 300 members.


But by the late 1870s, serious internal dissension was weakening the community: Many of the younger members lacked commitment to the Oneida ideals. And a rebellious faction rejected Noyes’ attempt to pass leadership on to his son Theodore and demanded changes in complex marriage and other traditions. As the community struggled to resolve their problems, a group of clergymen mounted a campaign to have Noyes prosecuted on criminal charges for his sexual practices. Fearing jail, Noyes fled to Canada in the summer of 1879.


(Image credit: Flickr user Will Culpepper)

Soon afterward, the community stopped practicing complex marriage. Some members married each other legally and formed conventional families. Next, communism was abandoned; and in 1881, the still-profitable Oneida Community was incorporated as a joint stock venture. Today, Oneida, Ltd. (as the company was renamed in 1935), is the biggest manufacturer of stainless steel and silver-plated flatware in the world. So the silverware you give someone for a wedding gift may well be historically linked to a group who famously rejected monogamy. Just one of life’s little ironies.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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