- Historic Sites
The Great Oneida Love-in
Driven from Vermont, the prophet John H. Noyes and his followers formed a communistic society in central New York where they shared everything — including a belief that scientific breeding would improve their offspring
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
A refuge awaited the persecuted saints in the burnedover district of central New York, a region familiar to Noyes. A group of perfectionists offered the Putneyans a sawmill and forty acres of woodland on Oneida Creek, halfway between Syracuse and Utica. It was a bland, fertile, welcoming country, suitable for an Eden. By good omen, the spot was the exact geographical center of New York, if one overlooked Long Island.
In mid-February of 1848, “the year of the great change,” the pilgrims began to arrive. Defying the upstate winter, lodging in abandoned cabins, they set to with a will to build a community dwelling and workshops. Some of the neighbors looked at them askance; most welcomed these honest, pious, industrious newcomers, and some even were converted to perfectionism and threw in their lot with the colony.
The early years were the heroic age of Oneida. All worked together, cutting and sawing timber, digging clay for bricks, building simple houses, clearing land for vegetable gardens. Everyone took his or her turn at the household tasks. All work was held in equal honor, without prestige connotations. Noyes recognized that most American experiments in communal life had foundered because they were established on the narrow base of agriculture; his communism would live on industry. Thus Oneida marketed canned fruits and vegetables, sewing silk, straw hats, mop sticks, travelling bags, and finally, silver tableware. Its traps for animals, from rodents to bears, became famous as far as Alaska and Siberia. The cruelty of traps seldom occurred to the makers, who were frontiersmen as well as perfectionists. Sympathy with suffering beasts and the conservation of wildlife were concepts still undeveloped. To a critic, Noyes replied that since God had covered the earth with vermin, Oneida simply helped to cleanse it. Salesmen, known only as peddlers, were sent out to market the wares. On their return, they were given a Turkish bath and a sharp examination on faith and practice, a spiritual rubdown to expunge the stains of the unregenerate world.
The Oneida Community prospered. The numbers of the faithful rose. The great Mansion House, the community home, was begun in 1860 and completed a dozen years later. It is a far-wandering red-brick building or group of buildings, standing on a knoll amid magnificent fat trees. Harmoniously proportioned, with its towers, mansard roofs, and tall French windows, it is a superb example of mid-nineteenthcentury architecture. Its message is security, peace, and material comfort. The interior is graced with fine woodwork and decorations. The parlors, the excellent library, the lovely assembly hall, are redolent with memories, jealously preserved and proudly recounted. Here live a number of descendants of the original Oneidans, together with some lodgers, still regarded with kindly pity as “foreign bodies.”
The memories, second-hand though they are, are all of a happy time, of a golden age long lost. John Humphrey Noyes, affectionately referred to by his grandchildren as “the Honorable John,” was a cheerful person, and imposed happiness on his great family. The story is told of a visitor who asked her guide: “What is the fragrance I smell here in this house?” The guide answered: “It may be the odor of crushed selfishness.” There was no money within the Oneida economy, no private possession, no competition tor food and shelter, and hence little rivalry.
All worked and played together. Whenever possible, work was done on the “bee” system; thus a party of men and women would make handbags on the lawn, while a dramatic voice read a novel aloud. Classes were conducted in such recondite subjects as Greek and Hebrew. Dances and respectable card games, like euchre and whist, were in favor. Amateur theatricals were a constant diversion. The productions of The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor , and especially of H.M.S. Pinafore , were famous as far as Utica and Syracuse. Music was encouraged, with an orchestra and much vocalization. Music, Noyes mused, was closely related to sexual love; it was an echo of the passions. However, music contained a menace; it gave rise to rivalries, jealousies, and vanities, to what Noyes reproved as “prima donna fever.”
Noyes had strong views on dress. He called the contrast of men’s and women’s costumes immodest, in that it proclaimed the distinction of sex. “In a state of nature, the difference between a man and a woman could hardly be distinguished at a distance of five hundred yards, but as men and women dress, their sex is telegraphed as far as they can be seen. Woman’s dress is a standing lie. It proclaims that she is not a twolegged animal, but something like a churn, standing on castors. … Gowns operate as shackles, and they are put on that sex which has most talent in the legs.”
From the beginning at Oneida, a new dress for women was devised, loose skirts to the knee with pantalets below, thus approximating a gentleman’s frock coat and trousers. Some visitors were shocked, some were amused; few were allured. Indeed, the specimens remaining in the community’s collections and the representations in photographs hardly seem beautiful. But the wearers rejoiced in their new freedom of movement. They cut their hair, in despite of Saint Paul. It was asserted they looked and felt younger.