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 sexual continence, and mutual criticism. There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney and Cambridge, Vermont. 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.
The manufacturing of silverware, the sole remaining industry, began in 1877, relatively late in the life of the Community, and still exists. 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. 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.
The Oneida community believed strongly in a system of free love known as complex marriage, where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon. 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.
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, Noyes' niece, who wrote extensively about her romantic and sexual relations with other members of Oneida.
Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting. The goal was to eliminate undesirable character traits. 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.
To control reproduction within the Oneida community, a system of male continence or coitus reservatus was enacted. 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”. 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. Young men were introduced to male continence by women who were post-menopause, and young women were introduced by experienced, older males.
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". 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. 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. If a male failed they faced public disapproval or private rejection.
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. It is believed that male continence did not lead to impotence in the community.
A program of eugenics, then known as stirpiculture, was introduced in 1869. It was a selective breeding program designed to create more perfect children. 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. 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.
Role of women
Oneida embodied one of the most radical and institutional efforts to change women’s role and improve female status in 19th-century America. 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. 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. Last, women had an active role in shaping commune policy, participating in the daily religious and business meetings.
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. 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. However, a woman’s right of refusing a sexual overture was limited depending on the status of the man who made the advance.
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.
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. The move also divided the community, as Communitarian John Tower 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.
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. 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.
Many histories and first-person accounts of the Oneida Community have been published since the commune dissolved itself. Among those are: The Oneida Community: An Autobiography, 1851 - 1876 and The Oneida Community: The Breakup, 1876 - 1881, both by Constance Noyes Robertson; Desire and Duty at Oneida: Tirzah Miller's Intimate Memoir and Special Love/Special Sex: An Oneida Community Diary, both by Robert S. Fogarty; Without Sin by Spencer Klaw; Oneida, From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table by Ellen Wayland-Smith; and biographical/autobiographic accounts by once-members including Jessie Catherine Kinsley, Corinna Ackley Noyes, George Wallingford Noyes, and Pierrepont B. Noyes.
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 Oneida Community Mansion House was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and the principal surviving material culture of the Oneida Community consists of those landmarked buildings, object collections, and landscape. The five buildings of the Mansion House, separately designed by Erastus Hamilton, by Lewis W. Leeds, and by Theodore Skinner, comprise 93,000-square-foot (8,600 m2) on a 33 acre site. This site has been continuously occupied since the Community's establishment in 1848 and the existing Mansion House has been occupied since 1862. Today, the Oneida Community Mansion House is a non-profit educational organization chartered by the State of New York and welcomes visitors throughout the year with guided tours, programs, and exhibits. It preserves, collects and interprets the intangible and material culture of the Oneida Community and of related themes of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Mansion House also houses residential apartments, overnight guest rooms, and meeting space.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Oneida Community.|
- Oneida Community Mansion House – a museum of the Oneida Community
- Oneida Community Digital Collection at Syracuse University
- Oneida Community archives at Syracuse University
- 1905 Magazine Article (with photos)