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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Lookout Staff

September 12, 2016 -- Before their free love commune become a thriving silverware manufacturer that embodied the middle-class American dream, Oneida community members shared spouses and believed Christ had long come.

The unusual story of the 19th century community in New York state will be the subject of a presentation at the Santa Monica Public Library on Thursday by author Ellen Wayland-Smith, a descendant of the community's founder John Humphrey Noyes and a professor of writing at USC.

Wayland-Smith's book "Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table" explores the history of the religious free love commune "that evolved into the nation’s leading manufacturer of silverware and a coveted mark of middle-class respectability," event organizers said.

Founded in 1948 in Oneida by "a spirited but socially awkward young man," the community believed that Jesus had returned in 70 AD and that its members were bringing about his millennial kingdom.

"Amid the fervor of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, John Humphrey Noyes, a spirited but socially awkward young man, attracted a group of devoted followers with his fiery sermons," said a notice for the book by Macmillan Publishers.

The Oneida Community -- which had smaller branches in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey, and Putney and Cambridge, Vermont -- shared property and possessions and held sessions of public criticism to eliminate undesirable character traits.
Engraving of recruit at Oneida Community
Recruit arriving at Oneida Community (Library of Congress)
They also practiced a system of free love that allowed any member to have sex with any other consenting member and a form of contraception based on male continence.

Women wore their hair short and took part in most community work. Women over 40 served as religious and sexual "mentors" to adolescent boys, reducing the chances of conceiving.

"Noyes’s belief in the perfectibility of human nature eventually inspired him to institute a program of eugenics, known as stirpiculture, that resulted in a new generation of Oneidans who, when the Community disbanded in 1880, sought to exorcise the ghost of their fathers’ disreputable sexual theories," according to the book's publisher.

Soon, they would convert the commune into Oneida Community, Limited, a joint-stock company that would manufacture a coveted brand of silverware poplar in pre- and post-WWII America that was a "purveyor of the white-picket-fence American dream," according to the publisher.

Thursday's presentation takes place at 7 p.m. in the Main Library’s MLK, Jr. Auditorium, 601 Santa Monica Boulevard, followed by a book sale and signing.

For more information, visit or contact the Santa Monica Public Library at (310) 458-8600. The Main Library is directly served by Big Blue Bus lines 1, 7, R7, R10. Big Blue Bus lines 2, 3, R3, 5, and 9 also stop within a short walking distance. Bicycle parking racks are available at the library.

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