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Dreams and Other Products of Nineteenth-Century Communities

Knowledgebase > Dreams and Other Products of Nineteenth-Century Communities

History Professor Lyman Tower Sargent debunks the myth that historic communities withdrew from the societies in which they lived. Then, as now, communities contributed culturally in a wide variety of ways, both philosophically and materially — from the abolitionists of Hopedale to the public schooling of New Harmony, from the quality manufactured goods of Amana to the austere lines of Shaker furniture. Last century’s communities tended to be hierarchically run, yet economically democratic; they were philosophically liberal and accorded labor more dignity than the society at large.

Except for the Shaker influence on design, the use of the ever popular Shaker song “Simple Gifts” by Aaron Copland, and a fascination with the sexual relations at Oneida, early American intentional communities tend to be treated as if they had withdrawn f rom all contact with the wider culture. This was emphatically not the case.

While communities did withdraw to practice their chosen lives, they were always in touch with the wider culture, both drawing from it and contributing to it. Even the most isolated communities — foreign-born religious groups with limited English language skills — interacted with their neighbors through trade and sharing ways of dealing with the unfamiliar environment. Of course these interactions had definite limits. Many communitarians, then as now, had decided that the wider culture was deeply flawed, corrupt, even evil. Hence, while the impulse for withdrawal was real, it was never complete.

The origins of cultural influences are notoriously difficult to demonstrate, and the great majority of nineteenth-century intentional communities remain largely unstudied. Even so, much is known about the practical influence some of these groups had on Am erican culture. These practical aspects that we actually know about are the first focus of this survey, followed by a consideration of communitarian social and political ideas — where the most important influences are found.


Early Religious Communities Enriched American Culture

Nineteenth-century religious communities made important contributions to American material culture. The Shakers, Oneida, Amana, and other groups mass-produced industrial and agricultural products and fine handcrafts. In upper New York State, Oneida made s ilk, canned fruit, and manufactured animal traps for the fur trade. After decades of successful operation, communal businesses were converted to a stock corporation in 1881 with community members, mostly native New Englanders, becoming stockholding employ ees. Today, Oneida Ltd. continues as a thriving corporation producing stainless steel and silver tableware.

The Amana villages near the Iowa River produced high-quality woolen goods and print cloth for wholesale distribution nationally. Lumber, produce, honey, meat, flour, and many other products were retailed locally. To this day, Amana is still well known for high-quality foods (fruit and hams), electric appliances, generous wages, and scrupulous business ethics.

The Inspirationists of Amana are Pietist dissenters from the Lutheran Church — refusing to take oaths of allegiance or give military service — and were inspired by divine revelation to migrate from their individual homes in Germany. The Inspirationists moved to New York State in 1842 and formed a communal economy, moving again in 1855 to Iowa. While retaining the Amana Church and common spiritual beliefs, the communal businesses were changed to a stock corporation in 1932. Today the Amana Society has a stable population of 1,400 people.


Shaker Influences Stand Out

The Shakers had the widest impact in many areas of American culture, most clearly in architecture, furniture, decorative arts, and music. The Shakers became communal in 1787, and grew to include several thousand members living in 19 communities across the northeast by the mid-1800s. However, their vows of celibacy made the Shakers completely dependent on new-member recruitment to sustain their communities. After 1830, Shaker membership declined slowly for the next hundred years — to less than 100 by 1940 and only a handful now.

Simplicity was central to Shaker life. While the tune for “Simple Gifts” may be the best-known Shaker music, the words symbolize the Shaker quest for purity and unity.

Simple Gifts

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, 
‘Tis the gift to be simple, come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight. 

When true simplicity is gain’d, 
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d, 
To turn, turn will be our delight 
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right…


Simplicity Leads to Full, Rich Life

The most famous expression of simplicity was Shaker furniture, which came to exemplify all of Shaker life. Their furniture was very simple; straight lines were preferred, with no decorative flourishes. The result was an austere beauty that has attracted m uch attention in recent years. All Shaker artifacts were designed to fit a lifestyle that, while emphasizing the role of work as worship, stressed an economy of motion and effort that led to the development of many labor-saving devices. For example, most Shaker chairs were designed to be hung from pegs on the wall to ease floor cleaning.

The Shakers were particularly adept at designing ways of easing housework; they spent much time and effort on improving washing machines and developing various devices to make ironing easier. Ease of work was always one of the goals, but that aim was firs t and foremost a way of removing impediments to work as worship. Exhaustion makes it must less likely that one will see work as a way of getting closer to God. Therefore, the Shakers aimed at simplicity — simplicity in work, simplicity in design, simplic ity in life. Simplicity, they believed, led to a full, rich life.


Social and Political Ideas of Early American Religious Communities

The greatest contributions made by early American intentional communities were the principles on which they based their lives. Often founded on idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible, these nineteenth-century communes look back to a long tradition of Christian communitarianism, radicalism, and heresy, and are sometimes linked to the developing tradition of socialism. The Shakers and the members of Oneida and Hopedale were explicitly socialists, and many socialist theoreticians — including Friedrich E ngels — looked to these religious American communities as exemplars of the possibilities of socialism.

To a great extent, the early American religious communities were authoritarian, patriarchal, and hierarchical. Political power derived from religious charisma and authority and religious leaders who delegated authority as they chose. Even where democratic forms existed, as at Oneida and Hopedale, the personalities of the religious leaders gave them considerable power, whatever legal forms existed. Adin Ballou and Hopedale came closest to overcoming this problem.

Economically, all these communities practiced some form of common ownership. A few practiced communal ownership only for prudential reasons; some for political reasons; but most were following a biblical injunction to do so. On the whole, communities were successful economically and provided a comfortable life for their members. Normally community members worked hard, but they lived at least as well as — in many cases better than — they would have in the wider culture. When communities dissolved, genera lly their members were left reasonably well off.

But esoteric theology, not material well-being, was the focus of communal life. For instance, the most fundamental theological propositions of the Shakers were concerned with the dual nature of God. This duality pervaded Shaker life from governance to arc hitecture. All Shaker buildings were constructed to reflect this duality. Each of the buildings had at least two entrances and two staircases, often directly next to each other, so that men and women would never meet in a doorway or on the stairs. This ex treme separation of the sexes was a combined result of theological dualism and the rejection of physical sexual relations taught by Mother Ann Lee.

The Practical Christians of Hopedale Hopedale (1841Ð1856), near Milford in eastern Massachusetts, was an egalitarian commune of up to 235 people. Founder Adin Ballou tried to make the teachings of Christianity real through the lives of the members. He sought, as the title of one of his perio dicals has it, to develop Practical Christians. One aspect of this process was the vision of a community withdrawn from the evils of the world, where it would be possible to live a better life.

Hopedale served as a center for various reform movements. The community was an important center of abolitionist and temperance activities, as was Oneida to a lesser extent. Hopedale and Oneida were both active in the women’s rights and labor movements. Bu t it was Oneida, based near Lake Oneida in upper New York State, that was the most infamous group in the history of the communitarian movement.


Oneida: Christian Perfectionists Establish Successful Complex Marriage

The Oneida Community of Christian Perfectionists was founded in Putney, Vermont, by John Humphrey Noyes in 1840. A communal economy was established in 1844, and three years later the main community site was moved to former Oneida Indian Reservation lands (purchased by the community from New York State). Oneida grew to include well over 200 people with branch communes in Walling-ford, Connecticut, and, for a time, at four other sites. The fact that Oneida was one of the most successful American communities economically and socially gets lost in the popular concern over their communal sexual relations.

The practice of what Oneidans called “complex marriage” has fascinated the popular press for over a century. Bible Communism and complex marriage meant nonpossessiveness and sexual fidelity within the group, and was based on descriptions of heaven found i n the biblical Gospels of Matthew and John. At Oneida, complex marriage required considerable discipline of community members. Every woman was free to refuse or accept any, or every, man’s attention; but “special love” (sexual exclusivity) or jealousy for single individuals had to be given up. Oneida women and men shared the freedom to love other Oneida men and women — but only if there was a mutual attraction confirmed by the community, and only if the community agreed the pair were a proper match, most especially regarding experience in male continence. The people of Oneida were quite disciplined in their practice of male continence (coitus interruptus), which was vital to avoiding unplanned pregnancy.

The community could not afford many children in the early years, and the equality-minded Oneida women did not want to stay pregnant most of the time. While the wider society operated without any effective awareness of family planning and contraception, th e Oneida system worked very well: In the two decades between 1848 and 1869 only 35 children were born to a community of some 40 sexually active couples and many singles (beginning at puberty). During the following decade of planned — but still limited — pregnancies, 58 children were born.


Mutual Criticism and Stirpiculture: Paths toward Perfection

Another basic Oneida institution was mutual criticism. This system of pointing out the personal strengths and weaknesses of community members has been used by Mao’s China and some contemporary communities, although it is doubtful whether Oneida was the in spiration for these modern practices. In Oneida, mutual criticism was a formal process in which each member was criticized and given the chance to correct faults. Most members, consciously striving for perfection, welcomed it. Mutual criticism was designe d to help each member maintain a clear view of their social, familial, and economic responsibilities to other individual members and the community as a whole.

In 1869, after 20 years of male continence, the community was secure enough to afford more children. Oneida undertook a eugenic experiment they had envisioned for years, which they called “stirpiculture.” The community had long since decided it made the m ost sense if they were to have children, to have the best children possible. A board of community members decided who should have children. The experiment was successful on almost any measure including the physical and intellectual quality of the Oneida c hildren.

Of course, the quality of the children was due as much to child-rearing practices as to breeding practices. Children were raised communally. They went into community nurseries at an early age, where they were looked after as much as possible by women othe r than their mothers to avoid “special love” and exclusive attachments. Children were given some productive work at a fairly early age, but they also enjoyed a great deal of freedom.

The community consciously saw itself in the forefront of the women’s rights movement, providing women the chance to experiment with various changes in dress and style. But, of course, the dramatic changes in sexual behavior, child rearing, and variety of work opportunities were of primary significance in women’s daily lives.

Most religious communitarians believed that their experiments would be short-lived because the Second Coming was near — they were preparing themselves for the heavenly life soon to come. But the Oneida Perfectionists were notably different. The Perfectio nists thought that the Second Coming had already occurred, and that they were creating the perfect life that God intended for all of His children.

Oneida and the other intentional groups are appropriately labeled experimental communities, or communal experiments. Members were willing — even eager — to experiment with their own lives in their search for a better society. These were all remarkable c ommunities of people willing to move from belief to practice, willing to change their lives dramatically to fit a vision of a better life.


New Harmony: A First Attempt at Cooperative Community

New Harmony, a residential cooperative from 1825 to 1827, is located in southern Indiana near Evansville. This cooperative was the most influential secular community of the era, even though it was a disastrous experiment as an intentional community. Rober t Owen, the founder, was involved with the emerging cooperative movement at his textile mills in Scotland when he purchased the town of New Harmony from the Harmony Society.

A German Pietist commune (1805Ð1916) that founded the settlement in 1814, the 800 Harmonists had established a regional trading center with 180 buildings — dwellings, factories, mills, stores, school, library, church — and public gardens surrounded by 2 ,000 acres of improved fields and pastures and almost 18,000 acres of woodlands. The Harmonists sold it all to Robert Owen for $125,000 and moved back to Pennsylvania where they had already built one town and proceeded to build another one.

Owen sought to introduce the new cooperative concepts to North American society through New Harmony — 20 years before a group of English weavers developed the Rochdale Principles for effective co-op management. In converting New Harmony from a religious commune to a secular cooperative, every mistake that could be made was made. Cooperative organizing wasn’t started until months after the town was purchased and many of the residents already established, along with a variety of personal and ideological co nflicts. There was never any agreement on basic community rules and regulations; candidates for membership were not screened. Owen spent most of his time traveling to promote the community, or living in and managing his model company town in Scotland (whi ch included the largest cotton-spinning mills in Great Britain). There was never any cohesive leadership at New Harmony, and there were constant disputes.

Even so, in its brief existence as a cooperative, New Harmony was a focal point for major reform activities. Neither the American labor movement nor the women’s movement would have developed in quite the way they did without the people and ideas from New Harmony. The community attracted a number of outstanding European scientists, architects, and educators who had a tremendous impact on the development of these professions in the United States, especially education.


Frontier Leadership and Education Radiate from New Harmony

For good or ill, the state capitals of a number of midwestern states were designed by a man from New Harmony; an important early geologist of the midwest was headquartered at New Harmony; and Owen’s children stayed in the United States and became active i n various reform movements. One, Robert Dale Owen, was involved in the statehood of Indiana, was an early member of Congress from Indiana, wrote the legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution, and chaired the committee that set up the Freedman’s Bureau to actively protect the rights of former slaves after the Civil War.

Robert Owen believed in mass education, and the United States is one of the few countries where the idea has ever been taken seriously. New Harmony, then on the frontier at the Wabash River, had the first educational system in the United States to provide public schooling from childhood through adult education. To this day, adult education in the town of New Harmony is enhanced by the imposing Workingmen’s Institute, the first of 160 libraries funded by William Maclure.

An educator who came to New Harmony with Owen, William Maclure had a vision of higher education as we know it today in the great universities. For Maclure, higher education had to include research and publication together with teaching. He wanted New Harm ony to be the first true university in the United States.

Regarding university education, Maclure’s vision exceeded that of Owen, but both men found a common cause in vocational education. Maclure believed that from their earliest years students should be taught agricultural and industrial occupations as well as intellectual ones. Further, he believed that the best way to do this was through experience. Students should work and learn skills while also getting a formal education. Maclure argued that students should be in income-producing jobs to help defray the e xpenses of their education; he aimed at making all schools self-supporting through cooperative work-study programs.

This last point was part and parcel of the cooperative approach that communities like New Harmony were preaching. Cooperative work, it was believed, would be more productive and provide a better life than individual, competitive jobs. Nashoba and Brook Farm

Although New Harmony excluded “persons of color” from cooperative membership, one of those who spent time there, Frances Wright — a famous lecturer and women’s rights advocate — tried intentional community as a means of helping slaves to buy their freed om. Deep in the slave-holding south, on the Wolf River outside Memphis, Tennessee, Wright founded Nashoba (1825Ð1835). This community was home to several white abolitionists and 30 slaves working to educate themselves for freedom, while buying their way o ut of bondage.

The members of Brook Farm, near Boston, Massachusetts, undertook a major experiment in social reform by establishing a community that sought to abolish the status differences between mental and physical labor. Nathaniel Hawthorne, faced with a pile of man ure to be moved and his first set of blisters, scathingly satirized the experiment. Brook Farm was both an unusual and important intentional community. Preschool or day-care education was specifically designed with two purposes: to provide early education al experiences for the children, and to free their parents for other productive labor. Founded in 1841, Brook Farm grew to over 70 members before it was destroyed by fire in 1846.


Many Secular Communities Emphasized Education and Equal Rights

The history of American education would have been much different without New Harmony and other secular communities that emphasized education. Many of the people who joined these communities wanted to better educate themselves and their children, and they wanted to educate the outside world by their example.

At the base of these communitarian ideals was a form of environmental determinism combined with the belief that people would choose to change — to improve — themselves, their children, and their environment. Members believed that intentional communities could provide a better life than could be achieved through private ownership and competition. Even with the high failure rate and the personal struggles involved, many communitarians continued to believe in cooperative lifestyles.

Most of the early secular communities were democratic although not consensual; they aimed at equality and generally practiced it. Economically, most groups were communal, holding all property in common and distributing goods on the basis of need.

Conclusion: Dreams Can Come True, for a Short Time or for Lifetimes

In reviewing more than a century of dreams involving several thousand people, a number of interesting conclusions emerge. First, nineteenth-century communities were generally successful economically — compared to their other plans, community economic goa ls were relatively simple to define. Second, the members of many communities bickered and fought continually. Third, and probably connected to the second point, leadership was erratic. This was true partly by choice; some communities did not want leadersh ip — they wanted to control their own lives individually. Sadly, some of the secular communities did not last long enough for the ties of friendship and communal feeling to overcome disagreements about implementation of group ideals.

Both authoritarian and democratic processes can produce viable intentional communities. Authoritar-ianism seems to be most successful with a religious sanction. Democracy requires hard work and all involved must be willing to participate in lots of meetin gs. Just as in the wider culture, achieving group goals can be hindered by the egos of group members, and by open or poorly defined membership policies. The most important conclusion is that social equality within an intentional community is damned hard, but can be achieved given sufficient determination. Some nineteenth-century intentional communities realized gender, racial, ethnic, or religious equality, and/or accepted both mental and physical labor as of equal worth. Outside of community, realization of such egalitarian dreams is hard to achieve, and virtually impossible to maintain.

I don’t believe that any dream can ever truly fail. And even though most of these aren’t my dreams, I find it hard to call them nightmares; none of these communal societies ever developed the nightmarish idea of imposing their vision on outsiders. We know now, to our cost, that dreams can become nightmares. Hence, we must approach dreams — perhaps our own most of all — with both respect and caution.

The dreams of communitarians from the last century gradually changed — from the Shakers’ millennial waiting for the end of history, to the secular and religious activism of New Harmony, Oneida, and Hopedale. In their waiting, preparing themselves for the ir future heavenly abode, the Shakers accomplished a great deal — changing their own lives and the way the rest of us perceive the objects around us.

Oneida, Hopedale, and the secular communitarians developed a democratic egalitarianism that had been presaged in the nondemocratic millennial communes. The Shakers’ separation of the sexes was later followed by more political empowerment of women in commu nities like Oneida, Nashoba, and Hopedale. Racial equality was the norm at Hopedale, the mission of Nashoba, and a practice of most other religious and secular communities — or at least one of their dreams.

Thus, while the religious communities were generally patriarchal, hierarchical, and authoritarian, they were also generally economic egalitarians and provided a rich intellectual, religious, and cultural life for all members. While Brook Farm and New Harm ony specifically addressed the problem of balancing mental and physical labor, all the communities gave greater dignity to labor than was available in the wider society.

Even though many women remained tied to traditional occupations, communes like Oneida, the Shakers, Hopedale, New Harmony, and Brook Farm tried to equalize the reward system, and encourage more active political participation. The secular groups took parti cular care to empower elements of their communities that were disenfranchised in the world around them. Formal participation was extended beyond the white, male, property-owning class to include women, blacks, and poor people. Variations of New England to wn-meeting democracy were developed in nineteenth-century intentional communities just as this form of community empowerment was beginning to disappear elsewhere.

Intentional communities of the last century had dreams of creating better lifestyles for their members. On the whole, they succeeded in realizing their dreams — some for only a short time, others for generation after generation after generation. This ric h American heritage will provide inspiration for many future generations of communitarians as the quest for perfection continues.

About the Author

Lyman Tower Sargent is a Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department, University of MissouriÐSt. Louis. He is Editor of Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, and a past board member with the Communal Studies Association. Lyman has abridged this essay from a much longer article, “The Social and Political Ideas of the American Communitarians: A Comparison of Religious and Secular Communes Before 1850,” in Michael S. Cummings and Nicholas D. Smith, editors, Utopian Studies III (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), 37Ð58. Lyman is also the author of British and American Utopian Literature, 1516Ð1985: An Annotated Chronological Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1988).

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