The Perfectionists or Oneida Community

Extinct Group: Oneida Community ("The Perfectionists")  Take a photo tour of the Oneida Community House.

founder: John Humphrey Noyes; established in Oneida, NY in 1848 with 87 members.
They practiced what Noyes called Bible Communism. Since selfishness must be done away with, all claims of "mine and thine" were renounced, whether in property or in persons. Thus, the leader believed, the perfectionists were returning to the social practices of the primitive apostolic church. At first the colonists made only a sparse living from farming and fruit-growing, but in time they established highly profitable industries.

Front view of The Mansion

women's revolutionary rights and roles: women's rights were respected as equal to men and the "selfish ownership" of them in marriage was rejected
  • food preparation -- designed to free women from "the worst kind of slavery"
    A) men and women served only one hot meal, breakfast, each day -- men and women and children ate together
    B) cold or hot food, depending on the cooks in charge on a particular day, was available on a self-service basis for the other two meals
    C) meals were vegetarian with milk productions (butter, cheese)
  • work -- women shared in all manual labor -- farm and crafts -- which changed each month
    -- Oneida were well-known for their high quality crafts: silverware still bears their name
  • clothing -- women shortened their long dresses and wore trousers under them for easy of doing manual labor
  • hair -- women bobbed (cut) their long hair (first appeared in the dominant society only in the 1920s)
    A) to save time and trouble and B) to discourage vanity
  • learning -- everybody was encouraged to read and study to improve the community
social structure and sexual relations based on deeply held Christian beliefs:
  • every man was the husband of every women; every women was the wife of every man
  • pooled their affections and property under God
  • really wicked behavior was romantic attachment to one person: selfish love
  • the outside world called "free love" without recognizing the religious basis
  • sex had both social and reproductive functions
  • to control the number of children that could be supported, celibacy was practiced in the beginning
  • as the community prospered, sexual intercourse was practiced in a unique way:
    1) the Oneidanites called it "complex marriage" -- sex between men and women was scheduled and recorded to assure that no favoritism occurred
    2) men were trained by post-menstrual women to satisfy women (to have organisms) but not to ejaculate (masturbation was also prohibited)
economic activities:
  • One of their members invented a superior type of steel trap which gained a wide market
  • the Community made steel chains, canned of fruits and vegetables, and manufactured sewing thread and embroidery silk.
  • In 1877 the Wallingford branch began the manufacture of silver-plated tableware, and three years later this promising industry was transferred to Niagara Falls, New York.
    Oneida silverware is still being made.
  • women practiced birth control
  • having only as many children as could be supported by the community
  • children (up to 12 years) lived in separate houses and were cared for by specialists, not by their biological parents
  • freed mothers from child rearing duties and so allow them to develop their talents
  • children were the focus of the adults, a very unusual practice in the 19th century
  • children studied at universities, e.g., 13 men studied at Yale University, and later returned to the community to share their new knowledge
social control: "law of love" -- public criticism was used among members for self-improvement
outside world had stereotypes: sexual ones only
1) members distributed themselves by lot at bedtime
fact: men and women scheduled sex with each other with a committee which recorded each encounter to assure that no favoritism resulted
fact: older and more spiritual people were preferred for mating
2) they all slept in one big bed
fact: each person had their own sleeping room and bed
fact: sex between men and women was contacted in separate rooms off of main parlor
3) the children did not know their parents
fact: children and parents visited several times a week
fact: children were raised together by experienced and interested women
pressure from the outside created division in the community:
  • In 1879, Noyes argued that "complex marriage" should be abandoned.
  • In 1880, a joint-stock company, Oneida Community Ltd., was formed in which each member received shares.
  • 226 members continued to conducted business in silverware, chairs, and silk thread
today's irony: brides today select Oneida silverware without knowing that in the Oneida community, each women was married to every man!