Oneida Community

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The Oneida Community was a religious commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus's millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism). The Oneida Community practiced Communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions), Complex Marriage, Male Continence, and Mutual Criticism. There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney and Cambridge, Vermont.[1] The community's original 87 members grew to 172 by February 1850, 208 by 1852, and 306 by 1878. The branches were closed in 1854 except for the Wallingford branch, which operated until devastated by a tornado in 1878. The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, and eventually became the giant silverware company Oneida Limited.[2]

Community structure

Even though the community reached a maximum population of about 300, it had a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections.

The manufacturing of silverware, the sole remaining industry, began in 1877, relatively late in the life of the Community, and still exists.[2] Secondary industries included the manufacture of leather travel bags, the weaving of palm frond hats, the construction of rustic garden furniture, game traps, and tourism.

All Community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities. Women tended to do much of the domestic duties.[3] Although more skilled jobs tended to remain with an individual member (the financial manager, for example, held his post throughout the life of the Community), Community members rotated through the more unskilled jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries. As Oneida thrived, it began to hire outsiders to work in these positions as well. They were a major employer in the area, with approximately 200 employees by 1870.

Complex marriage

The Oneida community believed strongly in a system of free love known as complex marriage,[4] where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented.[5] Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon.[6] Unlike 20th century social movements such as the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the Oneidans did not seek consequence-free sex for pleasure, but believed that, because the natural outcome of intercourse was pregnancy, raising children should be a communal responsibility. Women over the age of 40 were to act as sexual "mentors" to adolescent boys, as these relationships had minimal chance of conceiving. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men. Likewise, older men often introduced young women to sex. Noyes often used his own judgment in determining the partnerships that would form, and would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hopes that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the non-devout.[7]

In 1993, the archives of the community were made available to scholars for the first time. Contained within the archives was the journal of Tirzah Miller,[8] Noyes' niece, who wrote extensively about her romantic and sexual relations with other members of Oneida.[1]

Mutual criticism

Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting.[9] The goal was to eliminate undesirable character traits.[10] Various contemporary sources contend that Noyes himself was the subject of criticism, although less often and of probably less severe criticism than the rest of the community. Charles Nordhoff witnessed the following criticism of member "Charles":

Charles sat speechless, looking before him; but as the accusations multiplied, his face grew paler, and drops of perspiration began to stand on his forehead. The remarks I have reported took up about half an hour; and now, each one in the circle having spoken, Mr. Noyes summed up. He said that Charles had some serious faults; that he had watched him with some care; and that he thought the young man was earnestly trying to cure himself. He spoke in general praise of his ability, his good character, and of certain temptations he had resisted in the course of his life. He thought he saw signs that Charles was making a real and earnest attempt to conquer his faults; and as one evidence of this he remarked that Charles had lately come to him to consult him upon a difficult case in which he had had a severe struggle, but had in the end succeeded in doing right. "In the course of what we call stirpiculture," said Noyes, “Charles, as you know, is in the situation of one who is by and by to become a father. Under these circumstances, he has fallen under the too common temptation of selfish love, and a desire to wait upon and cultivate an exclusive intimacy with the woman who was to bear a child through him. This is an insidious temptation, very apt to attack people under such circumstances; but it must nevertheless be struggled against.” Charles, he went on to say, had come to him for advice in this case, and he (Noyes) had at first refused to tell him any thing, but had asked him what he thought he ought to do; that after some conversation, Charles had determined, and he agreed with him, that he ought to isolate himself entirely from the woman, and let another man take his place at her side; and this Charles had accordingly done, with a most praiseworthy spirit of selfsacrifice. Charles had indeed still further taken up his cross, as he had noticed with pleasure, by going to sleep with the smaller children, to take charge of them during the night. Taking all this in view, he thought Charles was in a fair way to become a better man, and had manifested a sincere desire to improve, and to rid himself of all selfish faults.[11]


To control reproduction within the Oneida community, a system of male continence or coitus reservatus was enacted.[12] Noyes decided that sexual intercourse served two distinct purposes. The primary purpose was social satisfaction, “to allow the sexes to communicate and express affection for one another”.[13] The second purpose was procreation. Of around two hundred adults using male continence as birth control, there were twelve unplanned births within Oneida between 1848 and 1868.[14] Young men were introduced to male continence by women who were post-menopause, and young women were introduced by experienced, older males.[15]

Noyes believed that ejaculation “drained men’s vitality and led to disease” and pregnancy and childbirth “levied a heavy tax on the vitality of women”.[16] Noyes founded male continence to spare his wife, Harriet, from more difficult childbirths after five traumatizing births of which four led to the death of the child.[17] They favored this method of male continence over other methods of birth control because they found it to be natural, healthy and favorable for the development of intimate relationships.[18] If a male failed they faced public disapproval or private rejection.[18]

It is unclear whether the practice of male continence led to significant problems, although it is possible that masturbation and anti-social withdrawal from community were issues.[19] It is believed that male continence did not lead to impotence in the community.[20]


A program of eugenics, then known as stirpiculture,[21] was introduced in 1869.[22][23] It was a selective breeding program designed to create more perfect children.[24] Communitarians who wished to be parents would go before a committee to be matched based on their spiritual and moral qualities. 53 women and 38 men participated in this program, which necessitated the construction of a new wing of the Oneida Community Mansion House. The experiment yielded 58 children, nine of whom were fathered by Noyes.

Once children were weaned (usually at around the age of one) they were raised communally in the Children's Wing, or South Wing.[25] Their parents were allowed to visit, but if those in charge of the Children's Wing suspected a parent and child were bonding too closely, the community would enforce a period of separation.[26]

Role of women

Oneida embodied one of the most radical and institutional efforts to change women’s role and improve female status in the nineteenth century America.[27] Women gained some freedoms in the commune that they could not get on the outside. Some of these privileges included not having to care for their own children as Oneida had a communal child care system, as well as freedom from unwanted pregnancies with Oneida’s male continence practice. In addition, they were able to wear functional, Bloomer-style clothing and maintain short haircuts. Women were able to participate in practically all types of community work.[27] While domestic duties remained a primarily female responsibility, women were free to explore positions in business and sales, or as artisans or craftsmen, and many did so, particularly in the late 1860s and early 1870s.[28] Last, women had an active role in shaping commune policy, participating in the daily religious and business meetings.[27]

The complex marriage and free love systems practiced at Oneida further acknowledged female status. Through the complex marriage arrangement, women and men had equal freedom in sexual expression and commitment.[27] Indeed, sexual practices at Oneida accepted female sexuality. A woman’s right to satisfying sexual experiences was recognized, and women were encouraged to have orgasms.[29] However, a woman’s right of refusing a sexual overture was limited depending on the status of the man who made the advance.[30]

Ellen Wayland-Smith, author of “The Status and Self-Perception of Women in the Oneida Community,” argues men and women had roughly equal status in the community. She points out that while both sexes were ultimately subject to Noyes’ vision and will, women did not suffer any undue oppression.[31]


The community lasted until John Humphrey Noyes attempted to pass the leadership thereof to his son, Theodore Noyes. This move was unsuccessful because Theodore was an agnostic and lacked his father's talent for leadership.[32] The move also divided the community, as Communitarian John Towner attempted to wrest control for himself.

Within the commune, there was a debate about when children should be initiated into sex, and by whom. There was also much debate about its practices as a whole. The founding members were aging or deceased, and many of the younger communitarians desired to enter into exclusive, traditional marriages.[33]

The capstone to all these pressures was the campaign by Professor John Mears of Hamilton College against the community. He called for a protest meeting against the Oneida Community; it was attended by forty-seven clergymen.[34] John Humphrey Noyes was informed by trusted adviser Myron Kinsley that a warrant for his arrest on charges of statutory rape was imminent. Noyes fled the Oneida Community Mansion House and the country in the middle of a June night in 1879, never to return to the United States. Shortly afterward, he wrote to his followers from Niagara Falls, Ontario, recommending that the practice of complex marriage be abandoned.

Complex marriage was abandoned in 1879 following external pressures and the community soon broke apart, with some of the members reorganizing as a joint-stock company. Marital partners normalized their status with the partners with whom they were cohabiting at the time of the re-organization. Over 70 Community members entered into a traditional marriage in the following year.

During the early 20th century, the new company, Oneida Community Limited, narrowed their focus to silverware. The animal trap business was sold in 1912, the silk business in 1916, and the canning discontinued as unprofitable in 1915.

The joint-stock corporation still exists and is a major producer of cutlery under the brand name "Oneida Limited". In September 2004 Oneida Limited announced that it would cease all U.S. manufacturing operations in the beginning of 2005, ending a 124-year tradition. The company continues to design and market products that are manufactured overseas. The company has been selling off its manufacturing facilities. Most recently, the distribution center in Sherrill, New York was closed. Administrative offices remain in the Oneida area.

The last original member of the community, Ella Florence Underwood (1850–1950), died on June 25, 1950 in Kenwood, New York near Oneida, New York.[35][36]


From a 1907 postcard

An account of the Oneida Community is found in Sarah Vowell's book Assassination Vacation. It discusses the community in general and the membership of Charles Guiteau, for more than five years, in the community (Guiteau later assassinated President James A. Garfield). The Perfectionist community in David Flusfeder's novel Pagan House (2007) is directly inspired by the Oneida Community. Oneida Community is given tribute at Twin Oaks, a contemporary intentional community of 100 members in Virginia. All Twin Oaks' buildings are named after communities that are no longer actively functioning, and "Oneida" is the name of one of the residences.

The primary artifact of the Oneida Community, its 93,000-square-foot (8,600 m2) Mansion House, still stands in Oneida, New York. It has been lived in continuously since its construction in stages between 1862–1914 by the Oneida community. Today, it contains 35 apartments, 9 dorm rooms, 9 guest rooms, a museum and meeting and dining facilities. The Oneida Community Mansion House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The museum and parts of the house are open for visitors.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Desire and Duty at Oneida: Tirzah Miller's Intimate Memoir". Utopian Studies. 2001.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Why the Keepers of Oneida Don't Care to Share the Table", The New York Times, June 20, 1999.
  3. Kern, Louis J. (1981). An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  4. Foster, Lawrence (2010). "Free Love and Community: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Perfectionists." In: Donald E. Pitzer (ed.), America's Communal Utopias. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 253–278.
  5. Stoehr, Taylor (1979). Free Love in America: A Documentary History. New York: AMS Press, Inc.
  6. DeMaria, Richard (1978). Communal Love at Oneida: A Perfectionist Vision of Authority, Property and Sexual Order. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, p. 83.
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  8. Miller, Tirzah (2000). Desire and Duty at Oneida: Tirzah Miller’s Intimate Memoir. Ed. Robert Fogarty. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  9. Mutual Criticism. Oneida, N.Y.: Office of the American Socialist, 1876.
  10. Parker, Robert Allerton (1935). "Mutual Criticism." In: A Yankee Saint: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, p. 215.
  11. Nordhoff, Charles (1875). "The Perfectionists of Oneida and Wallingford." In: The Communistic Societies of the United States from Personal Visit and Observation. London: John Murray, pp. 292–293.
  12. Sandeen, Ernest R. (Mar 1971). "John Humphrey Noyes as the New Adam". Church History. 40 (1): 84.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  16. Mandelker, Ira L. (Autumn 1982). "Religion, Sex, and Utopia in Nineteenth-Century America". Social Research. 49 (3): 742.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  18. 18.0 18.1 Mandelker, Ira L. (1982). "Religion, Sex, and Utopia in Nineteenth-Century America": 743. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  20. Foster, Lawrence (1986). "The Psychology of Free Love in the Oneida Community": 18. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. McGee, Anita Newcomb (1891). "An Experiment in Human Stirpiculture," American Anthropologist 4 (4), pp. 319–326.
  22. Woodhull, Victoria C. (1888). "Stirpiculture; or, The Scientific Propagation of the Human Race", The Victoria Woodhull Reader. Weston, Mass.: M & S Press.
  23. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, Utopian Communities, 1800–1890.
  24. Richards, Martin (2004). "Perfecting People: Selective Breeding at the Oneida Community (1869-1879) and the Eugenics Movement," New Genetics and Society 23 (1), pp. 47–71.
  25. Youcha, Geraldine (2005). "The Oneida Community." In: Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present.. Boston: Da Capo Press, pp. 110–114.
  26. Matarese, Susan M. & Paul G. Salmon (1893). "Heirs to the Promise Land: The Children of Oneida," International Journal of Sociology of the Family 13 (2), pp. 35–43.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 Foster, Lawrence (1991). Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. pp. 91–102.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Kern, Louis (1981). An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. p. 260.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. Kern, Louis (1981). An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill. pp. 232, 224.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Kern, Louis (1981). An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill. p. 241.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Wayland-Smith, Ellen (1988). "The Status and Self-Perception of Women in the Oneida Community". Communal Societies. 8: 49.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Hillebrand, Randall (2003). "The Oneida Community", New York History Net.
  33. Roach, Monique Patenaude (2001). "The Loss of Religious Allegiance Among the Youth of the Oneida Community," The Historian 63 (4), pp. 787–806.
  35. New York Times; June 27, 1950
  36. Time (magazine); July 3, 1950; Died. Ella Florence Underwood, 100, last surviving member of the Oneida Community, a financially successful communal settlement (Oneida Silver) that practiced both promiscuity within its own group and stirpiculture; of a heart attack; near Oneida, N.Y.

Further reading

  • Barkun, Michael (1996). Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
  • Bernstein, Leonard (1953). "The Ideas of John Humphrey Noyes, Perfectionist," American Quarterly 5 (2), pp. 157–165.
  • Carden, Maren Lockwood (1869). Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
  • Foster, Lawrence (1981). "Free Love and Feminism: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community," Journal of the Early Republic 1 (2), pp. 165–183.
  • Foster, Lawrence (1986). "The Psychology of Free Love in the Oneida Community," Australasian Journal of American Studies 5 (2), pp. 14–26.
  • Foster, Lawrence (1991). Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons. Syracuse University Press.
  • Hinds, William Alfred (1908). "The Perfectionists and their Communities." In: American Communities and Co-operative Colonies. Chicago : C.H. Kerr & Co., pp. 152–231.
  • Kephart, William M. (1963). "Experimental Family Organization: An Historico-Cultural Report on the Oneida Community," Marriage and Family Living 25 (3), pp. 261–271.
  • Klaw, Spencer (1993). Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.
  • Lowenthal, Esther (1927). "The Labor Policy of the Oneida Community Ltd.," Journal of Political Economy 35 (1), pp. 114–126.
  • Meyer, William B. (2002). "The Perfectionists and the Weather: The Oneida Community's Quest for Meteorological Utopia, 1848-1879," Environmental History 7 (4), pp. 589–610.
  • Noyes, Pierpoint B. (1958). A Goodly Heritage. New York: Rinehart Press ISBN 0-01-646722-1
  • Olin, Spencer C., Jr. (1980). "The Oneida Community and the Instability of Charismatic Authority," The Journal of American History 16 (2) pp. 285–300.
  • Robertson, Constance (1972). Oneida Community; The Breakup, 1876-1881. Syracuse University Press ISBN 0-8156-0086-0
  • Robertson, Constance (1981). Oneida Community; An Autobiography 1851-1876. Syracuse University Press ISBN 0-8156-0166-2
  • Ryan, Mary P. (1981). Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Smith, Goldwin (1893). "The Oneida Community and American Socialism." In: Essays on Questions of the Day, Political and Social. New York: Macmillan & Co., pp. 337–360.
  • Spears, Timothy B. (1989). "Circles of Grace: Passion and Control in the Thought of John Humphrey Noyes," New York History 70 (1), pp. 79–103.
  • Spurlock, John C. (1988). Free Love: Marriage and Middle-Class Radicalism in America, 1825-1860. New York: New York University Press.
  • Thomas, Robert David (1977). The Man Who Would Be Perfect: John Humphrey Noyes and the Utopian Impulse. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Warfield, Benjamin B. (1921). "John Humphrey Noyes and his 'Bible Communists,'" Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 78, No. 309, pp. 37–72.
  • Wayland-Smith, Ellen (1988). “The Status and Self-Perception of Women in the Oneida Community,” Communal Societies 8, pp. 18–53.
  • White, Janet R. (1996). "Designed for Perfection: Intersections between Architecture and Social Program at the Oneida Community," Utopian Studies 7 (2), pp. 113–138.

External links

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