In 1848, the charismatic religious leader of a free-love cult fled to the city of Oneida, New York, and built a large mansion to house the dozens of members already involved and the hundreds who would join or be born into the cult in the following decades. In an odd twist of fate, this eventually led to hundreds of thousands of bayonets in American hands.
The story starts with that charismatic religious leader, a man named John Humphrey Noyes. He was a young student at Yale Divinity College in the 1830s when he learned about a new idea in Christianity, “Perfectionism.” This was basically the belief that man could become sinless on Earth through religious conversion and discipline.
Noyes might have had an ulterior motive in believing this. His journals reveal that he really wanted to bone down just, all the time. But as a fervent Christian, he believed that doing so was a sin, and even thinking about it much was impure. Perfectionism, as Noyes understood it, said all that was crap.
His particular understanding of Perfectionism basically said that, if you were a perfect child of God living in his perfect universe, then you were perfect, and so your thoughts and actions couldn’t be impure or sinful. This was a great “revelation” for a religious man who wanted to make it with at least a few ladies.
The Oneida Community and its mansion house in the late 1800s.
(D.E. Smith via New York Public Library)
So, he did what anyone would do in that situation: He started a free-love commune and recruited dozens of couples into it. All the men were husband to each of the women, and all of the women were brides to each of the men. So, sex between any two members of the commune was great as long as it was voluntary and the guy interrupted the act in time to prevent pregnancy.
The commune started in Putney, Vermont, but sticklers there thought “communal marriage” included a lot of what the legal system called “adultery.” Noyes and his followers fled to Oneida, New York. There, they built a large mansion to hold the massive family. The Oneida Community Mansion House held 87 members at the start. But Noyes got into selective breeding the members and recruited more, eventually growing it to over 300.
To support this huge household, members of the community were encouraged to start and run profitable businesses. The profits went to communal expenses or purchases. There was no real personal property in the commune.
But, like all Utopian societies, the wheels eventually fell off. A big part of that was Noyes’s selective breeding program where, surprise surprise, Noyes was the most common man assigned to breed and his sessions were often with the most desired women. And not all the children born and raised in the community were true believers.
But when the commune broke up in 1881, it didn’t make sense to many members to dissolve everything. After all, the community had multiple successful businesses, and the house was worth a lot of money. So, the mansion was split into apartments with a communal kitchen and dining room, and the business interests were consolidated into a joint-stock company. Yeah, they went corporate.
That joint-stock company eventually concentrated on its silverware manufacturing, creating an iconic brand that still makes flatware today. But when Uncle Sam has come calling over the over 130 years since, the Oneida Limited company has generally answered, manufacturing whatever the military needed.
Leaders at the Oneida Ltd. silverware plant in Oneida, New York, discuss how to manufacture U.S. Army bayonets in World War II.
(U.S. Office for Emergency Management)
In World War I, this was predominantly artillery shells, clips for ammunition, combat knives, and surgical instruments. Then, in World War II, the military asked them to make M1905 bayonets for the M1 Garand rifle as well as hand grenades, rifle sights, and more.
Now, those bayonets are a coveted collector’s item. Oneida manufactured an estimated 235,000 bayonets during the war, but something like 1.5 million were produced in the war, so it’s a fairly rare and coveted war item to find.
A weird legacy for what used to be a religious commune and cult built on free love.