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Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the…

Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table

by Ellen Wayland-Smith

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As the Oneida Community is nearby me (I have been to the Mansion House several times) its history has always fascinated me. The community was one of a number of Utopian societies that emerged in the 19th century. It was most widely known at the time (and still today) for its practice of group marriages where multiple partners would engage in marital relations. The Oneidas also experimented late in their association with a form of selective genetic breeding, called "stirpiculture", whereby couples were paired by the elders and sanctioned to have children, supposedly to advance desirable genetic qualities. The Oneidas were influenced by the eugenics movement that was extant in American at the time.

Professor Wayland-Smith is a descendant of the Oneida adherents. She has written a scholarly, but readable, account of the Oneidas with considerable elucidation on the theology of founder John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes was swept up in the religious fervor of the mid-19th century. He developed a view that the bible called on Christians to share their lives, their goods and even each other in a completely communal way; he called it "Bible Communism". It seems apparent that Noyes was tormented by sexual urges he found difficult to reconcile with his religion, but it would be a misinterpretation to conclude that he formed his society as a phony gateway to promiscuous sexual relations. Noyes's theology was complex and genuine. Wayland-Smith comments on the religiosity that was prevalent in Upstate New York in the mid-1800's. (She mentions Charles Grandison Finney who staged his revivals all across the region, including the village where I now reside.) The intensity of ecstatic religious emotion unleashed by the revivals she links, probably correctly, to enhancing the the libido of participants.

The Oneidas were admired for their industriousness and excellent business sense. Among their early business ventures was the manufacture of hunting traps which were widely marketed across the nation. Later, they entered the flatware market and produced for many decades the silverware known as Oneida silver. Sadly, in our globalized economy, the manufacture of flatware by Oneida, Ltd. has gone abroad. The company sought in the modern era to distance itself from the more lascivious and eccentric aura of its past and Wayland-Smith opens the story by describing a quiet move in the late 1940's to burn records that documented the commune's history and practices. The commune's descendants made great efforts to portray themselves as exemplars of gentile and conventional morality.

The role and place of women in the Oneida Community draws attention. Certainly, women of the community were more powerful and on more equal terms with men than is usually seen in 19th century culture.

Wayland-Smith mentions Pierpont "Pete" Noyes, a descendant who became the company's president in the mid-20th century. I had the pleasure of slight acquaintance with Pete Noyes when he was a board member of a human services agency where I worked. Pete was a plain-spoken, delightful man with a wry sense of humor. When I later visited the Mansion House and saw a portrait of John Humphrey Noyes I was struck by the strong family resemblance.

Professor Wayland-Smith has made a great contribution to the remarkable story of the Oneidas. Anyone in the central New York region around Oneida-Kenwood should visit the Mansion House and take the tour. ( )
  stevesmits | Nov 2, 2016 |
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"Amidst the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, John Humphrey Noyes, a spirited but socially awkward young man, attracted a group of devoted followers with his fiery sermons about creating Jesus'' millennial kingdom here on earth. Noyes and his followers built a large communal house in rural New York where they engaged in what Noyes called "complex marriage," an elaborate system of free love where sexual relations with multiple partners was encouraged. Noyes was eventually inspired to institute a program of eugenics, known as "stirpiculture," to breed a new generation of Oneidans from the best members of the Community--many fathered by him. When Noyes died in 1886, the Community disavowed Noyes' disreputable sexual theories and embraced their thriving business of flatware. Oneida Community, Limited would go on to become one of the nation's leading manufacturers of silverware, and their brand a coveted mark of middle-class respectability in pre- and post-WWII America. Told by a descendant of one of the Community's original families, Oneida is a captivating story that straddles two centuries to reveal how a radical, free-love sect, turning its back on its own ideals, transformed into a purveyor of the white picket fence American dream. - For readers of Jill Lepore, Joseph J. Ellis, and Greg Grandin"--… (more)

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