A scandalous past: Oneida flatware began as necessity for utopian community

A postcard dated June 26, 1907, shows the Oneida Community Home Building in Kenwood, N.Y., near Oneida. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

There are few people today who have not used or at least heard of Oneida cutlery. The flatware is ubiquitous in restaurants, hotels and kitchen drawers worldwide. Since its founding in the 19th century, Oneida Limited flatware has become something of an American tradition, although its roots are anything but traditional.

The flatware was originally manufactured by the Oneida Community, a religious utopian commune based in Oneida between 1848 and 1880.

A man named John Humphrey Noyes led the group. He was born in Battleboro, Vt., in 1811 to John and Polly Noyes. His father was a businessman and United States Congressman. His mother was an ardently religious woman who had hopes that her son would one day pursue a religious vocation.

Though he lacked any real interest in religion as a young man, in order to placate his mother, Mr. Noyes agreed to attend a local revival meeting in 1828 led by the great revivalist preacher Charles Finney. Though initially unimpressed by the revival, within days of his return Mr. Noyes became gravely ill and was convinced of his imminent death. While he did recover, the experience served as a catalyst for a religious conversion that led him to enroll in Yale Divinity School with the aim of becoming a preacher.

Denied ordination by Yale due to controversial theories he developed regarding the nature of salvation, Mr. Noyes left the school to preach his newly minted religious philosophy. Between 1834 and 1837 he traveled throughout New England and New York looking for converts; he found none. By this time, his religious philosophy grew to include a number of unconventional beliefs, including the denunciation of marriage.

As part of his evangelization effort, Mr. Noyes published articles elucidating his beliefs in a local Vermont newspaper. The articles attracted the attention of a woman named Harriet Holton, the daughter of a well-to-do, politically connected Vermont family. Ms. Holton became interested in Mr. Noyes’s work, which she financially supported. In June 1838, Mr. Noyes proposed “spiritual marriage” to Ms. Holton, explaining that the marriage would have all the trappings of a traditional marriage without the “selfish possession of one another.”

Mr. Noyes’ marriage to Ms. Holton brought a financial windfall, which he used to buy a small publishing company. There he published a newsletter called “The Witness”— a tool he used to propagate his teachings.
A handful of students from a Bible school located in Putney, Vt., that Mr. Noyes established joined his religious group in 1840. Calling themselves the “Putney Association,” the group adopted communism in 1844. Members pooled their personal and family assets, including a $20,000 inheritance from Mr. Noyes’ father, to support the community. By this time, the group had grown to 37 members living together in three houses. They ran two farms and maintained a general store in Putney.

It was during this period that the community began to practice some of Mr. Noyes’ more controversial beliefs, including group marriage. While limited to the group’s leadership, the practice was sufficient to draw ire from locals who had Mr. Noyes indicted on charges of adultery. Having no interest in political martyrdom, Mr. Noyes’ quickly moved the community to Oneida, where he purchased 23 acres of land.

Following their relocation to New York, the group renamed itself the “Oneida Community.” In addition to personal property and assets of incoming members, the group supported itself through various agricultural and industrial endeavors. These would eventually include such a wide array of businesses as dentistry, the manufacture of leather bags, a silk mill and, of course, silverware.

By 1848 the group had 87 members, most of whom were now openly engaged in the controversial practices that led to Mr. Noyes’ prosecution in Vermont. In the Oneida Community, every man in the community was “married” to every woman, and while cohabitation between two people was allowed, an exclusive mutual attachment was not only discouraged but punished.

Birth control, still relatively uncommon in the Victorian period, was widely practiced among the group. Mr. Noyes justified the practice by citing the numerous difficult childbirths experienced by his wife, Harriet. During the years of the birth control policy’s implementation, roughly 1848-1868, only 40 children were born to a community that, during the time, had 250 members.

The Oneida Community members also submitted to regular “mutual criticism.” A practice Mr. Noyes championed as a means to ensure moral conformity among the group. Each member would be criticized publically for any perceived deviations from the community’s moral or social code.

The community continued to exist peacefully until 1876 when Mr. Noyes, wanting to retire to Connecticut, conferred his role as community leader to his son, Theodore. Lacking the charisma and religious conviction of his father, Theodore Noyes’ leadership quickly sowed seeds of discontent among the community.

By 1879 deep schisms within the community had formed. Eventually, opposition from the outside community to the groups’ progressive practices forced members to abandon the complex marriage system altogether. By 1880, the community’s various businesses and manufacturing assets were reorganized into a joint stock venture. By 1881 the community disbanded and Oneida Community Limited, eventually called Oneida Limited, was charged with managing the businesses.

Today, the 93,000-square-foot Oneida Community Mansion, begun in 1861, is both a National Historic Landmark and a museum that houses a collection of artifacts related to the Oneida Community.

Lenka P. Walldroff is former curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She is a former museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She lives in Jefferson County with her husband and daughter. Her column appears in every issue.