Life on Display at the Mansion House
This post is part of a series of blogs completed for EAMC 606: Cities on a Hill: Material Culture in America’s Communal Utopias. This class examined the history and material culture of intentional communities throughout American history using Winterthur’s collections as well as field studies.
As our class stood in the front hallway of the Oneida Community Mansion House, an old woman passed through.
“She must be a community descendent,” I thought to myself. “Why else would an old woman be living in a rambling, old mansion? I wonder if her ancestors were stirps.”
The façade of the Oneida Community Mansion House, the single building where all community members lived. (All photos taken by Aliza Alperin-Sheriff)
A room key from the Oneida Mansion House, featuring an Oneida Limited spoon.
Instantly, I felt bad. Wondering about the woman’s personal details felt akin to looking at an animal in a zoo. My thoughts seemed rude and voyeuristic, especially the part where I speculated on whether she was descended from “strips,” or the products of stirpiculture, an early form of positive-eugenics, or selective breeding, practiced by the Oneida Community.
On the other hand, studying the Oneida Community feels almost inherently voyeuristic. The community is best known for its practices of complex marriage (the idea that all male members of the community were married to all female members of the community, so any man could have sex with any woman as long as she gave consent) and male continence (a method of birth control in which men learned not to ejaculate).
Pamphlets on topics like mutual criticism and male continence, written by John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community.
However, there is a lot more to the Oneida Community than their sensationalist sexual practices. At Oneida, like at most places, sex was taking place behind closed doors, but unlike most places, it was about the only activity taking place behind closed doors. Community members adhered to a Christian theology that asserted Christ’s second coming had already occurred and that by perfecting themselves they could achieve heaven on earth. Community members believed that part of perfecting themselves was eschewing the idea of “sticky love” or any sort of special attachment whether it was to a friend, a sexual partner, or even an object. In order to steer clear of sticky love, the members lived in tightly controlled community and were constantly under each other’s scrutiny.
The social control within the Oneida Community is built into the Mansion House itself. The building’s architecture was designed to force the Perfectionists into communal spaces. The small bedrooms are clustered around public areas with balconies that allowed community members to keep tabs on one another. Although we had read about the way the building pushed people into public spaces, actually getting to spend the night at the Mansion House and experiencing the tall, narrow hallways that led to large open spaces made this knowledge visceral.
A recreation of a bedroom at the Oneida Community Mansion House with a very little space, a single bed, a few personal possessions. The rooms were set up to discourage sticky love and to encourage members to be in public spaces.
The upper sitting room at the Oneida Community Mansion House with a balcony for surveillance purposes.
Another way that social control was enforced was through mutual criticism. Mutual criticism was a practice whereby members would go in front of a panel of other members to be publicly criticized. The ostensible goal of mutual criticism was to help members perfect themselves. Our guide, Dr. Molly Jessup, told us that most of the recorded criticisms related to selfishness and that the members of the Oneida Community held a very broad definition of selfishness. They considered it selfish for a person to speak too much about a subject they were interested in. They also considered it selfish to speak too quietly so that others would have to ask you to repeat yourself. The criticisms would often be printed in The Circular, the Oneida Community’s publication, which was distributed both within the community and to outsiders.
The Big Hall at the Oneida Community Mansion House, a large public space where community members would gather for events and was often the location for mutual criticism sessions.
At Oneida one’s life was always public and on display. There was no such thing as privacy. Even (and maybe especially) at the community’s height, living in the Mansion House always had a bit of voyeurism to it.
By Aliza Alperin-Sheriff, University of Delaware, Museum Studies MA program