Tuesday, April 03, 2007

God, Sex, and Silverware

Something new I learned recently.

Oneida, the company that makes nice silverware, began its life as a utopian society in Oneida, New York, in 1848. Founded by John Humphrey Noyes, this religious and social society was based on the ideal of Perfectionism, a form of Christianity with two basic values: self-perfection and communalism. The community worked together to make all sorts of commercial goods, and apparently made some fine bear traps. Eventually, they moved into silversmithing and thence to the Oneida Ltd. of today.

That’s what you can get from the Oneida
web site
. From the Oneida Community Mansion House Web page, you can discover that the Oneida community considered itself “a society that lived as one family with more than 300 members.” Furthermore, the society was disbanded in 1881 because of “pressures from within and without.” Both Web sites conveniently gloss over the whole truth, which is much more interesting than silverware and a 93,000-square-foot brick mansion.

The Oneida society had a few good ideas. For example, men and women had equality and equal voice in the community government — this during a time when black slaves were still considered property instead of people. Men and women were equal in the work force, too: they had a community nursery that allowed both men and women to work.

But they had a few ideas that are as radical now as they were then, specifically complex marriage, male continence, ascending fellowship, and stirpiculture.

Complex marriage. In the Oneida society, every man was married to every woman, and vice versa. Community members were not allowed to have exclusive romantic relationships. Every person in the community had his or her own bedroom. This sounds like a lovely little happy arrangement, but let me frame it in a different way: Because of complex marriage, nearly every adult had continuous sexual access to a partner. You might think that this would lead to all sorts of unregulated in-breeding, but wait . . .

Male continence. The men of the community were encouraged, as a sign of grace, to avoid orgasm. This kept unplanned pregnancies to a minimum. It all came down to muscle control. And how did men learn this muscle control? Younger men just entering puberty were allowed to have sex only with women who were too old to bear children, and these older women would help teach the young ‘uns some control.

Does this not sound like a great deal for the women? Because men avoided orgasm, sexual encounters could last for over an hour. And as women got older, they were encouraged to have sex with strapping young boys, all in the name of God! But the women weren’t the only ones to benefit sexually...

Ascending fellowship. J.H. Noyes believed that sex had not only biological, but spiritual and social purposes as well. The Oneidans believed that older people were spiritually superior to younger people, and that men were spiritually superior to women. (So much for equality, eh? But this society was, after all, created by a man.) To improve oneself, one should have sex only with someone who is spiritually superior, i.e., older. This is “ascending fellowship.” Once a person reached a certain level (usually determined by Noyes and his inner circle), he or she was then to practice “descending fellowship” by having sex with the younger folk.

Stirpiculture. Stirpiculture wasn’t one of the original tenets of the community, but was introduced in 1869. It was a selective breeding program to produce “more perfect” children. People who wanted to have children would come before a special committee, which would pair people up based on spiritual and moral qualities. This resulted in 58 children, 9 of whom were fathered by Noyes himself.

The “pressures from within and without” that caused the community’s breakup in 1881 — which the previously mentioned Web sites so quickly glossed over — was a product of two events. First, J.H. Noyes tried to pass leadership on to his son (which never works, does it?). The younger Noyes was an atheist and a weak leader. Second, a warrant was issued against J.H. Noyes for statutory rape. Noyes was tipped off and fled to Canada.

This reminds me of the episode of Numb3rs called “Nine Wives,” which involved, among other things, an in-breeding chart sewn into a quilt. Although life in the Oneida community most likely wasn’t nearly as oppressive or, frankly, scary as what was portrayed in Numb3rs, I’d bet good money that the shows writers started with Oneida as a skeleton.


Jer said...

Very interesting stuff, Andy.

Carolyn Hoard said...

Ha, ha, ha - I love the way you present the Oneida Community history! I've done a lot of reading about it because my ancestors were members. Would you mind if I use your blog in a genealogy case study program (if I decide to do the program, that is)? Thanks for the entertainment!
Carolyn Hoard