The Popular Oneida Silverware and the Polyamorous Religious Cult That Started It All

oneidaFor many Americans in the 20th century, holiday meals meant getting out the special Oneida Silverware. Stainless steel, ornamental and moderately expensive, it wasn’t a fancy dinner unless there was a Silverplate Oneida spoon on the table. Despite its traditional look, the history of Oneida Silverware is anything but. The company was originally founded by a 19th century upstate New York religious community who believed in communist ideals (while simultaneously exploiting capitalism for their own benefit), women’s and workers’ rights, parents not being overly fond of their own children, and polyamorous relationships. Here now is the story behind the forks, spoons and knives that grandma puts on the table every Thanksgiving.

John Humphrey Noyes was born to a financially comfortable family from Vermont in 1811. His father, John Noyes, was a United States Congressmen and uncle to future US President Rutherford B. Hayes. Noyes’ mother was an ardently religious woman who often forced her views onto her children. As a teen, Noyes was hormonal like any boy his age, but painfully shy around the opposite sex, convinced his red hair and freckles made him ugly.

By 1831, at 20 years old, he had enough of his mother’s persistent badgering. So, in the fall of that year, he attended a tent revival service by famed preacher Charles Finney. Thanks to that event, he was converted- one of thousands that were overtaken by the “Second Great Awakening” during the early 19th century. Now determined to be a preacher, Noyes took off for Yale Divinity School. However, while his ideas included some of the beliefs of so many other groups during the Awakening, his exact belief system had a few twists not shared by most, which would soon get him into trouble.

While at Yale, Noyes adopted the religious doctrine of perfectionism – that man has the ability to be spiritually and physically perfect – which led him to the belief that he, himself, was perfect and had already achieved complete holiness on Earth. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with many. He was kicked out of Yale and began preaching his version of perfectionism across the Northeast. His family begged him to come home, but he instead continued his impoverished, homeless wandering.

john humphrey noyesWhile he initially had little success convincing anyone to follow him (not many are interested in listening to a raving homeless man), eventually his message won over a select few, including a woman named Abigail Merwin. Noyes was smitten with Abigail, but Merwin was not as much. While she believed in his message, she was married to another man. Noyes’ distress over this situation lead him to come up with the concept in 1837 of  “spiritual spouses,” which evolved into “spiritual polyamory.” His belief was that traditional marriage made each person the “selfish possession of one another” and did not give them the ability to love all men and women equally. He noted in a letter in 1837,

When the will of God is down on earth as it is in heaven there will be no marriage. Exclusiveness, jealousy, quarreling have no place at the marriage supper of the Lamb. I call a certain woman my wife. She is yours, she is Christ’s, and in him she is the bride of all saints. She is now in the hands of a stranger, and according to my promise to her I rejoice. My claim upon her cuts directly across the marriage covenant of this world, and God knows the end.

Under these pretenses, Noyes eventually married another woman, Harriet Holton, but still had latitude to engage in other relationships. Not only accepting her new husband’s beliefs, Holton also happened to be the beneficiary of a very large inheritance, helping Noyes take his little community to the next level.

By the mid-1840s, the membership of “The Society of Inquiry” (as Noyes called it) had swelled to nearly three dozen followers. In 1846, the idea of spiritual polyamory also took the next step when Noyes encouraged 10 people, including himself and two of his sisters, to enter a marriage contract, meaning that all were married to one another. The contract also made “John H. Noyes… the father and overseer whom the Holy Ghost has set over the family thus constituted.”  Months later, Noyes was arrested on charges of adultery (which was illegal then, whether consensual or not), but he was freed and, to escape further persecution, moved his group to a farm along Oneida Creek in New York.

oneida_communityAs the years went on, membership in Noyes’ religious group, which changed its name to “The Community,” and the eccentricities of the man grew. Rules were adapted to his whims. Believing that new members needed more indoctrination, he asked all newbies to live under one roof together. Seemingly because he didn’t do well with emotional attachment, Noyes discouraged emotional attachment to one another and told his followers to devote that energy to the group instead.

Even more cult-like, parents who showed too much “sticky love” towards their own children (or vice-versa) would be barred from seeing them for a period until they could prove that they did not care for their own children any more than any of the others in the community. This did not stop some from secretly harboring special affection for their offspring, and children to their parents. For instance, one boy would later write about his experience when his mother would manage to get him alone. (Community children did not live with either of their parents, but in a Children’s House building where they were cared for by nurses and teachers after being given up by their mothers at the age of 18 months.) He stated his mother would say to him “Darling, do you love me?” And that, “I always melted. My marbles and blocks were forgotten. I would reach up and put my arms about her neck. I remember how tightly she held me and how long, as though she would never let me go.”

Perhaps most disturbingly, once the children went through puberty, they would be assigned to older men and women to engage in sexual acts. Specifically, around 14, males would be sent to “interviews” with a spiritually devout postmenopausal woman, with these women chosen specifically so they would not get pregnant from the boys, who had not yet learned to control their climax.

You see, rather than using the withdrawal method, coitus interruptus, which was one of the most effective birth control methods historically, and is surprisingly just as effective as condoms at preventing pregnancy, even in real world practice, the community instead practiced coitus reservatus as their main method of birth control- where the man was not to orgasm at all. The idea was that this would simultaneously prevent pregnancy, ensure the man maintained his vitality (the belief at the time was that the loss of semen negatively impacted a man’s health), and made sure the woman was optimally pleasured for maximal spiritual benefit.

On the other side, around the age of 12, females’ were likewise given so-called “interviews” with the old men in the community. This mandate that the young teens exclusively only have sex with older men and women, partially to control pregnancies and partially to make sure more “holy” members were the ones to introduce the youth to the “holy pleasures of sex,” was lamented by some teens in the community, but nevertheless was a strictly maintained practice until the teens were deemed old enough to have “interview” requests with one another granted by an intermediary.

Needless to say, this practice was extremely out of touch with the morals of both that age and this. (And, note, contrary to popular belief, it has never been the norm for young teenage girls or boys to marry in Western society. In fact, the lowest median age of first marriage since the early 1700s was by the baby boomer generation, where the average age of women marrying dropped from about 22-24 to 20.5 years in 1950. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was also the baby boomer generation that saw divorce rates rise to their highest in the last half century, peaking in the 1970s and early 1980s, and declining ever since, again contrary to popular belief.)

Looking past the extreme child abuse, Noyes’ attitude towards sex was relatively progressive for his era, particularly in the sense that he believed female sexuality was healthy and positive, going against the Victorian thinking of the day.

Just as scandalous for the age was that he firmly believed that being pregnant was essentially the bane of a woman’s existence. He felt it stopped women from fulfilling their spiritual potential, reduced their happiness and harmed their health, owing to the perpetual state of being pregnant and caring for babies (a fair percentage of which died in infancy) that was the life of so many women of that time period and region of the world. As such, Noyes strongly advocated for birth control, which resulted in just 40 children being born from 1848-1868 in the community. This was despite that the community comprised of 200-300 members during that period and that frequent copulation with different partners was the name of the game.

Eventually, if a woman wanted to become pregnant, not just have sex, she and the man of her choice had to apply to do so. If the couple were deemed sufficiently spiritual by a committee, they were allowed to procreate.  While seemingly overly strict, it is noted that there are only nine known instances of applications to have a child being rejected in the community.

The women of Oneida also were encouraged to engage in the same physical activities as the men, which included manual labor and sports. Freed from having to raise children and other such domestic affairs, a female in the Oneida community was just as likely to be chopping down a tree as cooking a meal in the kitchen. Likewise, the men did household tasks like laundry when the need arose, all of which was mostly unheard of in 19th century America.

By the beginning of the Civil War, the Oneida community was numbering in the hundreds, but struggling financially. With war and rising money demands, they needed to find a way to bring in money and fast. Despite the commune nature of the community, with no member allowed to accumulate possessions for themselves outside of basic necessities, Noyes never had any issues with the idea of the community as a whole accumulating wealth.

The group’s first major business venture was trying to grow and sell fruit, but the harsh winters of upstate New York made the task difficult. Next, they turned to several other business ideas, such as making leather bags, fine thread, and metal traps. While the women of the community never wore fur coats themselves, they were happy to benefit from such fads happening outside of their community with trapping business being a booming industry in America during the mid-19th century.  Needless to say, their metal traps sold well.

But it wasn’t going to last and the community sought to diversify its income sources even more. The story goes that in 1877, a member of the community whose offspring would eventually write a book about this group, was sitting on the banks of the river and noticed a silverware factory nearby. He figured they were on the same river, so they could just as easily make such silverware. By 1879, the Oneida Community was doing just that.

A year later, the religious community collapsed due to certain new marriage laws banning such complex marriages in the United States. A now-deaf Noyes abandoned his community, fleeing to Canada. Without his leadership, and with many youth of the group having come back from colleges with a new outlook on their home life, the community crumbled and the members mostly paired off with their favorite partner into more traditional relationships.

There was at this point still the matter of all the community’s assets, including Oneida Silverware. It was ultimately decided that a corporation should be formed with shares granted to former community members based on how much they original contributed financially to the community upon joining and how hard they’d worked while members. Of course, most had not worked that hard at all, with it being typical for community members to only work a few hours per day. For reference, the average work week in the United States in 1890 was around 90-100 hours per week for most tradesmen according to a federal government survey.  This lack of much work time had actually forced the community to hire outside laborers working more traditional extreme hours for the day to do much of the work in their various business ventures.

Led by former members of the community, including Noyes’ son, Oneida Community, Limited was born in 1880. Buoyed by very successful marketing in newspaper and magazine advertisements, Oneida Silverware took off into the 20th century. Celebrity endorsements, like Princess Margrethe of Denmark, and appealing to the dream of having a high-class home, made Oneida Silverware the largest seller of silverware in America in the mid-20th century. The descendants of the community hung onto the company until 2006 when bankruptcy forced a sale to EveryWare Global (who, themselves filed for bankruptcy last year).

Today, Oneida Silverware is still being sold and being used by grandmas everywhere, who are likely completely unaware of the communist, polyamorous religious community that originally made the cutlery.

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  • J. F. Gecik

    Quoting from the article:
    “Noyes’ mother was an ardently religious woman who often forced her views onto her children.”

    The above words reveal an unreasonable way of thinking. They are most likely evidence of a deep anti-religious prejudice on the writer’s part — or at least his hatred of the avoidance of sin, because it is not easy to be virtuous!

    When “ardently religious” parents teach their children what they believe to be religious truths (doctrines of the faith and morality), that is NOT called “forc[ing their] views onto” their children. It is simply an act of education in what most people (who have ever lived in human history) have believed to be the most important facet of life: religion!

    [As an unrelated observation, the author at least twice revealed that he is unfamiliar with the past tense form of the verb, “to lead.” For example, he writes, “While at Yale, Noyes adopted the religious doctrine of perfectionism … which lead him to belief that he, himself, was perfect … .” Instead of the word, “lead,” the writer was required to use the past-tense verb form, “led.” Yes, there is a chemical element — Lead (Pb) — that SOUNDS like “led,” but a writer must never substitute the element’s spelling for the verb’s spelling.]

    • Kay

      Exactly- also, the writer need realize that learning and memorizing scripture was common in the olden days, even taught in school- this wasn’t “forcing” anything, you cannot “force” a person to believe anything. It is akin to claiming public schools today are “forcing” us to memorize useless dates and names “down our throats” (another icky phrase I wish would die)
      If anything, society is doing more to deny the faith of individuals, rather than other way round, for instance we are not taught in school or media that Newton was an extremely devout Christian, nor are we told that Copernicus was also, nor Kepler, Faraday.. the list is endless. Einstein proclaimed there is no way any scientist can deny a Divine Creator, the more he learns the more he must accept the universe did not simply appear out of nothing. This Noyes guy did more to prove that “anti-religion” is more harmful than proper Christian teaching! as Noyes did all that is the opposite of what the Bible teaches.

    • Kaya

      No, there’s a difference between “teaching” a child your religious beliefs and “forcing” religious beliefs on your child. Admittedly, it’s a very, very thin line that moves depending on your tactics – but it’s still there.

      For example – if your child is of an age to be “Confirmed” in the Catholic Church and expresses misgivings or even states they’re not ready and would like to wait a year or two and you force them to participate that year or else – that is *forcing* your beliefs on your child. If you listen and discuss it with them, and either convince them that maybe they are more ready than they thought or you agree that waiting a year or two won’t hurt anyone, that is *teaching* your child about your religious beliefs. Sometimes it’s not the actions themselves that are forceful, just the way you’ve gone about it.

  • David Clark

    Verbosity aside, point taken on “led”. Like than/then, to/too, ad/add, and of course there/their/they’re, its ubiquity–especially on the internet–is beyond depressing.

    As for the rest, “‘ardently religious’ parents teaching their children what they believe to be religious truths” is easily the most significant cause of the worst horrors human beings have inflicted upon each other for thousands of years.

  • Rob

    Um, wouldn’t it be “parents teaching their children what they believe” is the most significant cause of the worst horrors… (as well as the most wonderful things)?

    Every parent teaches their kids what they believe, religious or not. Parents who fail to “force” their kids what they believe about gravity will lead to broken bones.