The United States has long been a place of religious experimentation, sectarianism, and utopianism, encouraged by the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One of the most unique and long-lasting utopian experiments was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1844 based on the Christian concept of perfectionism: that it is possible to live a sin-free life.
Noyes was expelled from Yale University in 1834 after he declared himself to be free from sin and established his own Bible school in Putney, Vermont. By 1844, it solidified into a religious community.
“Complex marriage,” or communal marriage among members, was one tenet of this new community. Noyes was arrested for adultery in 1847.
His followers and he fled to Oneida, New York, where they again established their commune. They built the Mansion House in 1862, where they lived until 1881.
Noyes and his followers called their ideology “Bible Communism.” Everything, including sexual partners and responsibility for childcare, was shared with the community.
Like most socialist utopian experiments, personal disagreements, power struggles, and lack of economic self-sufficiency began to erode the foundations of the Oneida Commune. Community members agreed to dissolve the commune in 1881 and incorporate as a silverware company Oneida Limited, which still exists to this day.
The mansion’s museum faithfully re-creates furnishings, rooms, and recreation areas of the 19th Century commune, and charts its rise and fall and transition into a for-profit business. It’s an incredibly unique and interesting look at an obscure side of American history.
One must-see exhibit is the “cabinet of curiosities,” or “Curio” featuring unusual objects collected around the world. Curios were popular in the 19th Century as an educational tool and conversation piece.
The Oneida Community Mansion House is located at 170 Kenwood Avenue in Oneida, New York. The museum is open for self-guided tours Monday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and guided tours are available Wednesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. It is open year-round, except for major Federal holidays. Adult tickets cost $5, students $3, and children under 12 are admitted free.