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NSG Visit April 26, 2003
A Utopian Community
Oneida, New York
On the rainy morning of April 26, 2003, nineteen members of the New Society of the Genesee were welcomed on the front porch entrance to the Oneida Community Mansion House by Giles Wayland-Smith, president of the non-profit corporation that owns the cluster of buildings and the grounds of the Oneida Community that had formed here in 1848.
He took us into the front hall of the central section, which had been designed by an architect member of the community and completed in 1862 as a residence and social center for members of the Oneida Community. In those days there were offices on either side of the central hallway where business was transacted between the Community and people who were not members. Outsiders were not permitted beyond the offices along the hallway.
At the end of the hallway, a broad flight of stairs leads to a grand, ballroom-size, assembly hall on the floor above. The Big Hall is two stories high with a balcony on three sides and a large stage in front. Windows behind the stage let much light into the room. The room was painted with elaborate decorations on the ceiling and had elegant woodwork It had been lit for evening affairs by gas-burning lamps suspended from the ceiling. In this setting, more theater-like than church-like, sermons were given by the society's founder John Humphrey Noyes (1811 - 1886). Sundays and church holidays were not, however, special days. In this same great hall, theatrical plays, choral and musical events were held for the members. It was the religious, social and entertainment center of the Community.
While our group was in the room, Giles told us that he is, through both of his parents, a descendant from Oneida Community members. His great grandmother was a sister of John Humphrey Noyes. Giles went on to tell us that Noyes came to believe from his religious studies that Christ's "Second Coming" had already occurred in 70 A.D. and therefore sincere Christians could consider themselves capable of religious perfection by being generous, living closely together, and holding all property in common. Noyes preached that men and women should share work, that sex should be enjoyed and that members should share partners. This practice, called "complex marriage," brought condemnation from other denominations upon the Perfectionists and they were forced to leave their original community in Putney, Vermont.
Members of his own family had joined Noyes, and with others they came to New York in 1848 to join a group of Perfectionists on a thousand acre tract provided by Jonathan Burt. About 55 people started the community at Oneida. More converts joined and the number of members increased. Belief in dedicating one's life to Christ's teachings, in holding all property communally, and in complex marriage were requirements for membership in the community. Compliance to group uniformity was maintained by the practice of mutual criticism of personality traits, behavior and spiritual attitudes.
The Perfectionists did have beliefs in common with other movements of the time: they favored the abolition of slavery, women's rights, and temperance. They did believe in self-improvement, and had a large library that is still housed in the Mansion House. They did work to be self-sufficient as a group, and they became industrious crafts people and successful marketers. At first they sold surplus canned fruits and vegetables from their gardens, but they soon began manufacturing.
One man, Sewell Newhouse, who was a blacksmith and a trapper, developed an animal leg trap which they manufactured and sold all over this continent, and overseas. All the members helped to make the traps, even the children fashioned the chain links, and other members went out with wagons to sell the well-recognized Oneida traps. They also made Victor mouse and rat traps. Traps of all sizes are now exhibited in a display room. The business quickly became so large that the Oneida Community employed outsiders to work in their shops; this brought the Community a certain degree of local tolerance.
The Oneidans tried to raise silk worms but gave that up and bought raw silk to spin and dye silk thread for their own use and for sale. They also manufactured wire-framed traveling bags. But the Oneida Community was perhaps best known for its silver-plated tableware. The community got into the manufacture of eating utensils as a round-about result of Noyes's belief that no person should become too attached to one activity or talent. One member who enjoyed playing his violin was told to put it away for a time. Members were not to form attachments; close relationships between men and women were discouraged. To break up alliances, members were sent to outpost communities at Brooklyn, New York, Newark, New Jersey, and Wallingford, Connecticut. The group in Connecticut were near silverware manufactories in East Milford, and soon the members at Wallingford took up silver work, and made a success of it. Today, the headquarters of Oneida Ltd. remains a short distance from the Mansion House. Along the same road in the opposite direction, is a knife factory still in operation.
In their practical endeavors, the Community was outstandingly successful. Their buildings were substantially constructed of brick and had central heating in the late 1860s, and indoor plumbing by the 70s. A children's wing was added in 1868, the north wing in 1878—membership grew to about 350 persons. People were eager to join a community that afforded comfort and leisure.
While our tour group was still in the big hall, Giles introduced us to his wife Kate and she told us more about the beliefs and the history of the Community. Then our group split one half to go with each of them to see other rooms inside the connected buildings that comprise the Mansion House, which has over 100,000 square feet of floor area.
Much of the residence is private, but we were shown a sitting room, also with a balcony, where members relaxed in the evenings. Each person had a private room. Relationships in the Community were monitored by the older people. The Society came to practice controlled mating with the intention of eugenic improvement much as with livestock breeding, perhaps a logical extension of perfectionism. Interestingly, a complete genealogy chart exists today.
Mothers were allowed to nurse their babies for a period of months and then the children were raised in a nursery without exclusive contact with their parents. Kate showed in the children's wing, where the babies and children were cared for and fed. Dr. Holton Noyes did an extensive study of the children, and beside finding them to be healthy no other conclusions seem to have been made. However, when the children grew up, they revolted against the controlled lifestyle and caused, as much as outside forces, the dissolution of the religion-based community. John Humphrey Noyes had dominated the Society from their beginnings until the late 1870s when a crisis in leadership developed.
In 1880 came an "Agreement to Divide and Reorganize." A joint-stock company was formed and the property divided among the members as shares in Oneida Community Ltd. By 1894, Pierrepont Burt Noyes (1870 - 1959), son of J. H. Noyes, was able to take the Community away from the control of the Spiritualists. He was 24 years old that year. In 1899, he became the general manager and began a 50-year career managing the Oneida Community's prosperous enterprises and expanding the residential and social center for the descendants. The lounge was built in 1914. By then the Mansion House had become an eclectic architectural mixture with one plain gabled roof and many mansard roofs and a couple of towers. It dominates a small rise in the neighborhood of Kenwood in Sherrill, New York. The Community laid out the city of Sherrill in 1905, brought the silverware business to Sherrill in 1913, and changed the business name to Oneida, Ltd. in 1935.
Finally in 1987, the buildings and grounds passed to Oneida Community Mansion House (OCMH) a non-profit corporation. There are still descendants who live in the building; a sense of the past continues. Guests can come to enjoy the beautiful lawns filled with gigantic trees, stay in nicely furnished sleeping rooms and eat meals in pleasant dining rooms.
Members of our group enjoyed a buffet lunch in the light and airy, stylishly decorated dining room of the Mansion House along with residents and others. Our visit coincided with an Arbor Day celebration. There were Arbor Day displays in the lounge and many visitors.
Following lunch we went to the permanent exhibit of the silk braidings of Jessie C. Kinsley (1858-1938) who was a child of the Community. We examined pictorial scenes she created with fine braids of vari-colored silk cloth arranged and fastened into place. Members of the New Society of the Genesee also looked at books for sale in the Museum Book Shop and browsed in the library. The main reading room is surrounded by shelves. Off one side is a narrow children's library room with windows facing a lawn and from one end of this room is the original library with many very old books and bound volumes in the original built-in wood cases.
David Minor made arrangements with Giles and Kate Wayland-Smith for our visit to the Oneida Community and their guided tour of the Mansion House at 170 Kenwood Ave., Oneida, NY 13421. Visit their website, www.oneida community.org, to read of community activities and see pictures of accommodations at the Mansion House.
John Humphrey Noyes looks serious and firm in several portraits displayed in the Big Hall upstairs. He had his vision of a perfect community of people and he was certain he knew how to run it. Much like managing a farm, he was the husbandman, he would direct the human livestock: make life productive and pleasant for them, feed and house and work them well, and breed them to his standards and ideals. Every person was to be a valuable and contributing part of the community, but not to be a self-directed individual. The children were to be carefully reared, and not too surprisingly, like so many offspring of controlling parents, some of them revolted.
While it lasted, the Oneida Community was about as good as communal societies get.
© 2003, Donovan A. Shilling and Bill Treichler
Noyes, Pierrepont B., My Father's House: An Oneida Boyhood, 1937; A Goodly Heritage, 1958
Edmonds, Walter D. The First Hundred Years, 1848 - 1948, 1958
Robertson, Constance Noyes. Oneida Community:
An Autobiography 1851 - 1876, 1970;