If the Victorian era is remembered as a period of prudish morality, buttoned-up collars, and restrictive corsets, then the Oneida Community was an insane, off-the-wall anomaly. Thanks to its embrace of free love, radical views toward women, and ideas about industry and biology, the Oneida Commune both defied and embodied some of the defining elements of Victorianism. For these and many, many other reasons, the Oneida utopian community is as fascinating as it was unbelievable.
Founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1841, the community was just that: a group of men and women who came together to live communally and follow a particular - and peculiar - lifestyle that Noyes prescribed. Noyes and his followers eventually settled in Oneida, New York. The community lasted for over 30 years, and by the time it officially dissolved in 1879, it boasted over 300 members.
Though the Oneida commune was merely one of many utopian communities scattered across 19th-century America, it is often remembered as one of the most infamous. It was notorious even at its own time for its atypical views on sex. Members of the community were actually encouraged to have lots of it, and they weren't bound by monogamy, one of the defining principles of Victorian morality.
Oneida's views about free love are just scratching the surface of its buckwild, interesting, and troubling features.
The Oneida Community's views on sex were especially eye-opening in the prim and proper Victoria era. According to founder John Humphrey Noyes, the act of sex purified the body and made it healthy - the more sex an individual had, the closer one came to immortality. Members of the community were engaged in a complex marriage. In other words, every woman was more or less married to every man in the community, and they were free from the limitations of monogamy.
Noyes was personally aware of the toll repeated pregnancies had on a woman's life - his own wife had had multiple difficult pregnancies and miscarriages before Noyes began Oneida. Thus, by giving woman the choice of having children or not, he advocated relatively radical views about gender in the Victorian era. Women, he felt, did not have to be burdened by pregnancy or doomed to a life of domestic labor.
Women also were allowed to cut their hair and dress in bloomers or pants.
Since the Oneida community allowed free love, they took the act and art of sex very seriously. As such, younger members were initiated in the act of sex by older members in a kind of mentorship program. Post-menopausal women mentored adolescent males, since there was no question of the woman's getting pregnant while the young men learned control.
Oneida was first and foremost a religious community. Members initially came there because they were in search of a lifestyle that might perfect their souls and bring them closer to God. Noyes himself had a background in religion and had actually studied theology at Yale.
He believed the Second Coming of Christ had already occurred, and that event had made all men and women free from sin. The communalism at the heart of Oneida was meant to be an imitation of God's love - each individual was to love everyone else equally, just as they felt God did.