Oneida: From Free Love to the Well-Set Table is one of the most intriguing books I’ve read. It is the backstory of Oneida, a silverware manufacturing company that was a household name for much of the 20th century. Although the book does cover some of that history near the end, it is mostly about the Utopian society created in the mid-1800s by John Humphrey Noyes.
Noyes, the son of a Puritan, established himself as a minister in his early 20s, but his approach to Christianity is radical compared to his upbringing. The group he establishes in New York, known as Bible Communists, share property, working responsibilities and childrearing duties. For the most part, none of that is significantly different from the other Utopian societies that were popping up across America in its early years.
But, the author, Ellen Wayland-Smith, a descendant of one of the original 1800s Community members, digs much deeper into the story — painting a compelling image of life in the 1840s to 1880s community. She does this by relying on historical documents, company publications and diary entries. This community is eventually incorporated and would be the foundation of the Oneida Company.
A significant portion of the book deals with the more unusual beliefs the group cherished. They practiced a program of eugenics, called stirpiculture, where they attempted to breed a more perfect human through scientific selection. They also had sessions where people would volunteer to be judged by the community — where all of their faults and sins revealed to them. (It feels a little bit like Festivus’ Airing of Grievances)
But, by far the most unusual belief was their concept of Complex Marriage — which basically meant that everyone was married to each other — sharing and trading partners. But it was not communal in the sense that everyone gravitated to the one or ones they were attracted to, instead partnerships were under the control of the church leaders. They, mostly Noyes, would determine which adults would be partnered. The church was not a believer in marriage between any two individual — a condition referred to as ‘stickiness.’ Where a pair became too attached Noyes would separate the pair often coupling them with new partners. The book is worth reading for this section alone because of the rules and guidelines created by the church to make it work. To say the least, it was a very unusual concept.
It is where, though, some of the author’s humor shines through including one section where she references diary entries about the escapades. One entry is from a woman who spends the last day of Complex Marriage — the church officially ended the practice in the 1880s — by rearranging her schedule on that final day so she could have coitus with three partners. On a less humorous note, though, the author point out the devastation the unmarried women in the church faced once Complex Marriage ended.
Noyes, realizing these women would be held to a different standard by mainstream society, especially since some of the women had children by three and four partners, Noyes made it his mission to help them find spouses before Complex Marriage officially ended.
Rated: 5 out of 5. The book is well-written, poignant and funny (at times), but mostly it is a well-researched, obscure and entertaining tale. It sheds light on a fringe religious group of the 1800s — one that practiced relative gender equality, practiced Socialism, and by and large was successful in its approach to society for more than 40 years. But, the story is also about the company’s effort to hide that past once the community disbanded and the corporation moved into the 20th century.