Oneida Community

The Oneida Community was a utopian commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus Christ had already returned in the year 70, making it possible for them to bring about Christ'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, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship. There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney, Vermont; 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.

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 Oneida Community was a self-supporting enterprise. Its primary industries were the growing and canning of fruits and vegetables, the production of silk thread, and the manufacture of animal traps. They were the primary supplier of animal traps to the Hudson's Bay Company. The manufacturing of silverware, the sole remaining industry, began in 1877, relatively late in the life of the Community. Secondary industries included the manufacture of leather travel bags, the weaving of palm frond hats, the construction of rustic garden furniture, 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 one person (the financial manager, for example, held his post throughout the life of the Community), Community members rotated through the more menial jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries. As the Community 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.

Gender roles

As a goal subsidiary to achieving religious and social revivalism, Noyes believed that one of the major purposes of the Community was to regenerate relations between men and women, which he believed to be deteriorating in the larger society. In theory, males and females had equality and equal voice in the governance of the community.

However, scholars disagree about whether gender roles at Oneida were, on the whole, feminist or conservative. On the one hand, women were relieved of the special duties of childcare by a community nursery, which provided care for infants and children so that both parents could work. Females adopted a style of dress, believed to have been copied from the Iroquois, consisting of a short skirt over trousers (bloomers). This allowed them much greater freedom of movement than contemporary women's styles.

On the other hand, Marlyn Klee-Hartzell has shown that women were disproportionately assigned to tasks--like nursery duty, housekeeping, and laundry--that were traditionally considered women's work. Some women may have been required to wear bloomers against their will by Noyes, who believed that allowing women to wear dresses would make them materialistic.

Complex marriage

In theory, every male was married to every female. Status at Oneida was based on people's spirituality. Community members were not to have an exclusive sexual or romantic relationship with each other, but were to keep in constant circulation. To help prevent a "special love" from forming, each Community member had his or her own bedroom. This extended even to couples who came to the Community already married. A married couple entering the Community was not required or even encouraged to legally dissolve their union, but rather to extend the borders of it to the rest of the Community in complex marriage. The average female Community member had three sexual encounters, or "interviews", a week.

Post-menopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, providing both with legitimate partners that rarely resulted in pregnancies. 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 which 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.

Noyes believed that sex had not only biological, but social and spiritual purposes as well. To Communitarians, it was yet another path to perfection. Generally, it was believed that older people were spiritually superior to younger people, and men were spiritually superior to women. Noyes and his inner circle were at the top of this hierarchy in the Community. In order to improve oneself, one was only supposed to have sexual relations with those spiritually superior. This was called "ascending fellowship." Once a Community member had reached a certain level (usually determined by Noyes and his inner circle), they were then to turn around and practice "descending fellowship" with those Communitarians trying to work their way up.

Mutual criticism

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 bad 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. Although this could sometimes be a harsh process, the majority of community members appreciated this criticism because it allowed them to try to better themselves.


A program of eugenics, then known as stirpiculture, was introduced in 1869. It was a selective breeding program designed to create even 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 from breast milk (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 to one another, the Community would enforce a period of separation.

Male continence

Males were encouraged to avoid ejaculation during intercourse with their partners, as a sign of self-control and spiritual maturity. This meant that many sexual acts did not cause impregnation of the female partner. This practice was based on the idea that "wasting" a man's semen was bad, and that difficult pregnancies for women should be avoided. (Noyes' wife had lost four of five children during her pregnancies.) The Oneida Community had a low fecundity rate, although around 40 unplanned pregnancies are documented during the early years of the Community. Compared to the larger society, the Community's concept of male continence could be considered progressive, partly because in contemporary society men did not usually have the responsibility of birth control.

Male Continence is based on the male's muscular ability to control his ejaculation during sexual coitus. Young boys just entering puberty were only allowed to participate in sexual acts with women who were past the child bearing age until they had proved their fully mastered ability to control ejaculation. Many women of the community found male continence to lead to the furtherment of their sexual enjoyment, as sexual encounters often could last for more than one hour.

There were rumors at the time claiming that controlling the man's 'seed' could be detrimental to the male's health and lead to infertility, but these claims were later disproved.


The community lasted until John Humphrey Noyes attempted to pass the leadership of the Community to his son, Theodore Noyes. This move was unsuccessful because Theodore was an atheist and lacked his father's talent for leadership. 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 sexual rituals, and by whom. There was also much debate about its practices as a whole. The founding members of the Community 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 harassment campaign of Professor Mears, of Hamilton College. John Humphrey Noyes was tipped off 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 afterwards, he wrote to his followers from Niagara Falls, Ontario, advising 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 they were cohabiting with 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 as of 2008 and is a major producer of cutlery under the brand name "Oneida Limited". In September 2004 Oneida Limited announced that it would cease all manufacturing operations in the beginning of 2005, ending a 124 year tradition. The company would continue as a marketer for products 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 to Oneida, New York.


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). Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley, was also a member of Oneida for a brief time. Worth Tuttle Hedden's book Wives of High Pasture is based in the Oneida Community. The Perfectionist community in David Flusfeder's novel Pagan House (2007) is directly inspired in the Oneida Community. Oneida Community is given tribute at Twin Oaks, a contemporary 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 Mansion House, still stands in Sherrill, 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.


Further reading

External links

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