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

One group of Christian reformists amid the splintered spiritual landscape of the Second Great Awakening followed the charismatic John Humphrey Noyes, who promised that the Kingdom of Heaven could be brought to earth imminently, through the perfection of human nature. Ellen Wayland-Smith, one of Noyes's descendants, opens the archives of Oneida, the preacher's commune in central New York, founded in 1848, where his plan for perfectionism turned from a spiritual endeavor into the largest brand name in silverware.

Noyes explained that, in part, perfection could be attained through the practice of Complex Marriage, a wife-swapping, sexual communalism designed to separate amative coupling from reproduction, under the auspices of Jesus' command to love thy neighbor. This tenet of faith, however, quickly progressed into eugenics when Noyes concluded that it was paramount that only the most pious of the Oneida colony, like himself, sire the next generation, a spiritually elite breed.

While Wayland-Smith remarks on the bizarre and dystopic elements, she also highlights the astonishingly progressive aspects of Oneida. To support the colony, men and women labored alongside one another in unprecedented equality. They worked in silks, made traps and eventually silverware, creating a reliable brand that grew even during the Depression; its advertisements tapped into the coveted middle-class American dream with art deco patterns named "The Lady Hamilton" and "Noblesse."

As younger Oneidans grew disillusioned with the faith and values of their elders, the colony began to fracture until all that remained was sterling silver and a household name. With rich detail and a touch of good humor, Wayland-Smith delivers a fascinating narrative of a peculiar American success. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

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