A study of the unlikely origins of one of America’s most recognizable brands.
For many, little bears the white, middle-class stamp of approval of monogamy more than the timeless wedding gift of silver. But Wayland-Smith (Writing/Univ. of Southern California), great-granddaughter of the former vice president and treasurer of Oneida Limited, unearths the eyebrow-raising history of the rural New York free love–espousing community that spawned one of this country’s top silverware makers. Founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, the Oneida Community brought together a tightknit group of Christian religious dissenters who, for 30 years, pooled their assets and lived as one in a “commune-cum-capitalist powerhouse.” Wayland-Smith carefully details the rich biography of Noyes, the fascinating sex-obsessed theologian who had his minister’s license from Yale Divinity revoked after he began subscribing to Perfectionism, the belief that a sinner could “not only reform himself by making the right moral choices but also be made ‘perfect’—free from sin—simply by accepting God’s grace.” Finding the traditional definition of Christian marriage too confining, Noyes proceeded to fashion his doctrine to practice eugenics and allow for—indeed to celebrate—completely open relationships, which had the somewhat unintended effect of dissolving (for a time) the strictures of traditional 19th-century gender roles for women. Oneida women were able to undertake the same jobs as their male counterparts and encouraged to shun the restrictive, corseted stays of Victorian dress for more practical attire. The narrative is occasionally dry, but the author offers as in-depth an account as possible of Oneida origins, given that, in 1947, unknown persons burned the community’s historical records in an attempt to purge the by-then well-respected industrial giant of its racy past. The spotlight she shines on this remarkable community’s beginnings and ending offers a riveting glimpse into the quintessentially American early-19th-century struggle with the rights of the individual and separation of church and state.
A smartly contextualized tale of “the tension between radical social critique and unapologetic accommodation...between communal harmony and individual striving.”