Sacred Texts  Utopia  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, [1875], at


The farm, or domain, as they prefer to call it, of the Oneida Community forms a part of the old Reservation of the Oneida Indians. It is a plain, the land naturally good and well watered; and it has been industriously improved by the communists. It lies four miles from Oneida on the New York Central Railroad, and the Midland Railroad passes through it.

The dwelling-house, a large brick building with some architectural pretensions, but no artistic merit, stands on the middle of a pleasant lawn, near the main road. It has some extensions in the rear, the chief of which is a large wing containing the kitchen and dining-room. The interior of the house is well arranged; the whole is warmed by steam; and there are baths and other conveniences. There is on the second floor a large hall, used for the evening gatherings of the community, and furnished with a stage for musical and dramatic performances, and with a number of round tables, about which they gather in their meetings. On the ground floor is a parlor for visitors; and a library-room, containing files of newspapers, and a miscellaneous library of about four thousand volumes.

There are two large family rooms, one on each story, around which a considerable number of sleeping-chambers are built; and the upper of these large rooms has two ranges of such dormitories, one above the other, the upper range being reached by a gallery.

p. 278

All the rooms are plainly furnished, there being neither any attempt at costly or elegant furnishing, nor a striving for Shaker plainness.

Above the dining-room is the printing-office, where the Circular is printed, and some job printing is done.

Opposite the dwelling, and across the road, are offices, a school-building, a lecture-room with a chemical laboratory, and a room for the use of the daguerreotypist of the community; farther on to the right is a large carpenter's shop, and to the left are barns, stables, the silk-dye house, and a small factory where the children of the community at odd hours make boxes for the spool silk produced here. There is also a large and conveniently arranged laundry.

Somewhat over a mile from the home place are the factories of the community—consisting of trap works, silk works, a forge, and machine shops. These are thoroughly fitted with labor-saving machinery, and are extensive enough to produce three hundred thousand traps, and the value of over two hundred thousand dollars' worth of silk-twist in a year. Near these workshops is a dwelling inhabited by thirty or forty of the communists, who are particularly employed in the shops.

The farm has been put in excellent order: there are extensive orchards of large and small fruits; and plantations of ornamental trees shelter the lawn about the dwelling. This lawn is in summer a favorite resort for picnic parties from a distance. As Sunday-school picnics are also brought hither, I judge that the hostility which once existed in the neighborhood to the Oneida Communists has disappeared. Indeed, at Oneida all with whom I had occasion to speak concerning the communists praised them for honesty, fair dealing, a peaceable disposition, and great business capacity.

Their system of administration is perfect and thorough. Their book-keeping—in which women are engaged as well as men, a young woman being the chief—is so systematized that

p. 279

they are able to know the profit or loss upon every branch of industry they pursue, as well as the cost of each part of their living.

They have twenty-one standing committees: on finance; amusements; patent-rights; location of tenant houses; arbitration; rents; baths, walks, roads, and lawns; fire; heating; sanitary; education; clothing; real estate and tenant houses; water-works and their supplies; painting; forest; water and steam power; photographs; hair-cutting; arcade; and Joppa—the last being an isolated spot on Oneida Lake, to which they go to bathe, fish, shoot, and otherwise ruralize.

Besides these, they divide the duties of administration among forty-eight departments: Circular; publication; silk manufacture; hardware; fruit-preserving; paper-box; printing; dyeing; carpentry; business office; shoe shop; library; photographs; educational; science and art; laundry; furniture; legal; subsistence; Wallingford printing; agriculture; horticulture; medical; incidentals; dentistry; real estate; musical; amusements; quarry; housekeeping; repairs; traveling; watches; clocks; tin shop; porterage; lights; livery; clothing; stationery; floral; water-works; children's; landscape; forests; heating; bedding; coal.

At first view these many committees and departments may appear cumbrous; but in practice they work well.

Every Sunday morning a meeting is held of what is called a "Business Board." This consists of the heads of all the departments, and of whoever, of the whole community, chooses to attend. At this meeting the business of the past week is discussed; and a secretary notes down briefly any action deemed advisable. At the Sunday-evening meeting the secretary's report is read to all, and thereupon discussed; and whatever receives general or unanimous approval is carried out.

Once a year, in the spring, there is a special meeting of the Business Board, at which the work of the year is laid out in some detail.

p. 280

At the beginning of the year an inventory is taken of all the possessions of the community.

Once a month the heads of the departments send in their accounts to the book-keepers, and these are then posted in the ledgers.

It is a principle with them to attempt nothing without the general consent of all the people; and if there is objection made, the matter proposed is put off for further discussion.

Shortly after New-Year, the Finance Committee sits and receives estimates. This means that each department sends in an estimate of the money it will require for the coming year. At the same time any one who has a project in his head may propose it, with an estimate of its cost. Thereupon the Finance Committee makes the necessary appropriations, revising the estimates in accordance with the general total which the society can afford to spend for the year. At or before this meeting the returns for the past year have been scrutinized.

All appointments on committees are made for a year; but there is a committee composed of men and women whose duty it is to appoint different persons to their work; and these may change the employments at any time. In practice, the foremen of the manufacturing establishments are not frequently changed. In appointing the labor of the members, their tastes as well as abilities are consulted, and the aim is to make each one contented.

The appointment of so many committees makes some one responsible for each department, and when any thing is needed, or any fault is to be found, the requisition can be directed to a particular person. Women, equally with men, serve on the committees.

They rise in the morning between five and half-past seven; this depending somewhat upon the business each is engaged in. The children sleep as long as they like. Breakfast is from eight to nine, and dinner from three to four; and they

p. 281

retire from half-past eight to half-past ten. The members do not now work very hard, as will appear from these hours; but they are steadily industrious; and as most of them superintend some department, and all of them work cheerfully, the necessary amount of labor is accomplished. Mere drudgery they nowadays put upon their hired people.

A square board, placed in a gallery near the library, tells at a glance where every body is. It contains the names of the men and women at the side, and the places where they can be found at the head; and a peg, which each one sticks in opposite his name, tells his whereabouts for the day.

There is no bell or other signal for proceeding to work; but each one is expected to attend faithfully to that which is given him or her to do; and here, as in other communities, no difficulty is found about idlers. Those who have disagreeable tasks are more frequently changed than others. Thus the women who superintend in the kitchen usually serve but a month, but sometimes two months at a time.

Children are left to the care of their mothers until they are weaned; then they are put into a general nursery, under the care of special nurses or care-takers, who are both men and women. There are two of these nurseries, one for the smaller children, the other for those above three or four years of age, and able somewhat to help themselves. These eat at the same time with the older people, and are seated at tables by themselves in the general dining-room. The children I saw were plump, and looked sound; but they seemed to me a little subdued and desolate, as though they missed the exclusive love and care of a father and mother. This, however, may have been only fancy; though I should grieve to see in the eyes of my own little ones an expression which I thought I saw in the Oneida children, difficult to describe—perhaps I might say a lack of buoyancy, or confidence and gladness. A man or woman may not find it disagreeable to be part of a great

p. 282

machine, but I suspect it is harder for a little child. However, I will not insist on this, for I may have been mistaken. I have seen, with similar misgivings, a lot of little chickens raised in an egg-hatching machine, and having a blanket for shelter instead of the wing of a mother: I thought they missed the cluck and the vigilant if sometimes severe care of the old hen. But after all they grew up to be hearty chickens, as zealous and greedy, and in the end as useful as their more particularly nurtured fellows.

In the dining-hall I noticed an ingenious contrivance to save trouble to those who wait on the table. The tables are round, and accommodate ten or twelve people each. There is a stationary rim, having space for the plates, cups, and saucers; and within this is a revolving disk, on which the food is placed, and by turning this about each can help himself.

They do not eat much meat, having it served not more than twice a week. Fruits and vegetables make up the greater part of their diet. They use tea, and coffee mixed with malt, which makes an excellent beverage. They use no tobacco, nor spirituous liquors.

The older people have separate sleeping-chambers; the younger usually room two together.

The men dress as people in the world do, but plainly, each one following his own fancy. The women wear a dress consisting of a bodice, loose trousers, and a short skirt falling to just above the knee. Their hair is cut just below the ears, and I noticed that the younger women usually gave it a curl. The dress is no doubt extremely convenient: it admits of walking in mud or snow, and allows freedom of exercise; and it is entirely modest. But it was to my unaccustomed eyes totally and fatally lacking in grace and beauty. The present dress of women, prescribed by fashion, and particularly the abominable false hair and the preposterously

Click to enlarge


p. 283

ugly hats, are sufficiently barbarous; but the Oneida dress, which is so scant that it forbids any graceful arrangement of drapery, seemed to me no improvement.

As they have no sermons nor public prayers, so they have no peculiar mode of addressing each other. The men are called Mr., and the women Miss, except when they were married before they entered the society. It was somewhat startling to me to hear Miss —— speak about her baby. Even the founder is addressed or spoken of simply as Mr. Noyes.

At the end of every year each person gives into the Finance Board a detailed statement of what clothing he or she requires for the coming year, and upon the aggregate sum is based the estimate for the next year for clothing. At the beginning of 1874, the women proposed a different plan, which was thus described in the Circular:

"In our last woman's meeting, Mrs. C —— had a report to present for discussion and acceptance. A change of system was proposed. The plan that had been pursued for several years was to have a certain sum appropriated for clothing in the beginning of the year—so much for men, so much for women, and so much for children. Another sum was set apart for 'incidentals,' a word of very comprehensive scope. A woman of good judgment and great patience was appointed to the office of keeper and distributor of goods, and another of like qualifications was associated with a man of experience in doing the greater part of the buying. Each woman made out a list of the articles she needed, and selected them from the goods we had on hand, or sent or went for them to our neighboring merchants. This plan worked well in many respects, but it had some disadvantages. The women in charge had to be constantly adjusting and deciding little matters in order to make the wants coincide with the appropriated sum. Many unforeseen demands came in, and at the end of the year they inevitably exceeded their bounds. This year the Clothing Committee, in consultation with the financiers, proposed to adopt another plan. It was this: To appropriate a sum in the beginning of the year large enough to cover all reasonable demands, and then, after setting aside special funds for children's clothing, traveling wardrobes, infants’

p. 284

wardrobes and incidentals, to divide the remainder into as many equal portions as there were women in the family. Each woman then assumes for herself the responsibility of making the two ends meet at the close of the year. It was thought it would be a great advantage to each woman, and particularly to every young girl, to know what her clothing, from her hat to her shoes, costs. She would learn economy and foresight, and feel a new interest in the question of cost and payment. The plan, too, allows of great variations in the way of making presents and helping one another when there is a surplus, or, when there is no need, leaving it untouched in the treasury. After due explanations and discussions, the women voted unanimously to try the new plan."

It may interest some readers to know that the sum thus set aside for each woman's dress during the year, including shoes and hats, was thirty-three dollars. A member writes in explanation:

"Minus the superfluities and waste of fashion, we find thirty-three dollars a year plenty enough to keep us in good dresses, two or three for each season, summer, winter, fall, and spring (the fabrics are not velvets and satins, of course—they are flannels and merinos, the lighter kinds of worsted, various kinds of prints, and Japanese silk); to fill our drawers with the best of under-linen, to furnish us with hoods and sun-bonnets, beaver and broadcloth sacks, and a variety of shawls and shoulder-gear, lighter and pleasanter to wear, if not so ingrained with the degradation of toil as the costly Cashmere."

When a man needs a suit of clothes, he goes to the tailor and is measured, choosing at the same time the stuff and the style or cut.

There is a person called familiarly "Incidentals." To him is entrusted a fund for incidental and unforeseen expenses; and when a young woman wants a breast-pin—the only ornament worn—she applies to "Incidentals." When any one needs a watch, he makes his need known to the committee on watches.

For the children they have a sufficiently good school, in which the Bible takes a prominent part as a text-book. The

p. 285

young people are encouraged to continue their studies, and they have two or three classes in history, one in grammar, and several in French, Latin, geology, etc. These study and recite at odd times; and it is their policy not to permit the young men and women to labor too constantly. The Educational Committee superintends the evening classes.

They also cultivate vocal and instrumental music; and have several times sent one or two of their young women to New York to receive special musical instruction. Also for some years they have kept several of their young men in the Yale scientific school, and in other departments of that university. Thus they have educated two of their members to be physicians; two in the law; one in mechanical engineering; one in architecture; and others in other pursuits. Usually these have been young men from twenty-two to twenty-five years of age, who had prepared themselves practically beforehand.

It is their habit to change their young people from one employment to another, and thus make each master of several trades. The young women are not excluded from this variety; and they have now several girls learning the machinists' trade, in a building appropriated to this purpose; and their instructor told me they were especially valuable for the finer and more delicate kinds of lathe-work. A young man whom they sent to the Sheffield scientific school to study mechanical engineering had been for a year or two in the machine shop before he went to Yale; he is now at the head of the silk works. Their student in architecture had in the same way prepared himself in their carpenter's shop.

No one who visits a communistic society which has been for some time in existence can fail to be struck with the amount of ingenuity, inventive skill, and business talent developed among men from whom, in the outer world, one would not expect such qualities. This is true, too, of the Oneida

p. 286

[paragraph continues] Communists. They contrived all the machinery they use for making traps—one very ingenious piece making the links for the chains. They had no sooner begun to work in silk than they invented a little toy which measures the silk thread as it is wound on spools, and accurately gauges the number of yards; and another which tests the strength of silk; and these have come into such general use that they already make them for sale.

So, too, when they determined to begin the silk manufacture, they sent one of their young men and two women to work as hands in a well-managed factory. In six months these returned, having sufficiently mastered the business to undertake the employment and instruction of hired operatives. Of the machinery they use, they bought one set and made all the remainder upon its pattern, in their own foundry and shops. A young man who had studied chemistry was sent out to a dye-house, and in a few months made himself a competent dyer. In all this complicated enterprise they made so few mistakes that in six months after they began to produce silk-twist their factory had a secure reputation in the market.

It is their custom to employ their people, where they have responsible places, in couples. Thus there are two house stewards, two foremen in a factory, etc.; both having equal knowledge, and one always ready to take the other's place if he finds the work wearing upon him.

They seemed to me to have an almost fanatical horror of forms. Thus they change their avocations frequently; they remove from Oneida to Willow Place, or to Wallingford, on slight excuses; they change the order of their evening meetings and amusements with much care; and have changed even their meal hours. One said to me, "We used to eat three meals a day—now we eat but two; but we may be eating five six months from now."

Very few of their young people have left them; and some

p. 287

who have gone out have sought to return. They have expelled but one person since the community was organized. While they received members, they exacted no probationary period, but used great care before admission. Mr. Noyes said on this subject:

"There has been a very great amount of discrimination and vigilance exercised by the Oneida Community from first to last in regard to our fellowships, and yet it seems to me it is one of the greatest miracles that this community has succeeded as it has. Notwithstanding our discrimination and determination to wait on God in regard to those we receive, we scarcely have been saved."

New members sign a paper containing the creed, and also an agreement to claim no wages or other reward for their labor while in the community.

Next: IV.—Sunday At The Oneida Community, With Some Account Of “Criticism.”