Animals in Utopia

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.


Many, when asked to recount the delights of Winterthur’s collections, list its glorious historical rooms, beautiful furniture, and striking decorative arts. While I too can’t help but admire these objects, I arrive at my favorite part of Winterthur’s campus before I even enter the buildings. Driving through the front entrance, my eyes invariably veer to the right, to look at Winterthur’s goats and sheep (blog posts here, here, here, and here) as they go about their daily lives of grazing, climbing, and socializing.

Nine sheep relax and graze in the shade of a tree in Winterthur’s Negandank Barn near the front gate. Photograph courtesy of the Winterthur Garden Blog, 2012

As a lover of nature and animals, I am struck not only by the beautiful pieces carved from the timber of America’s majestic woodlands, but also the living creatures that we share our lives and spaces with. It is from this standpoint that I approached the study of the material cultures of communal utopias, or intentional communities, in America.

A close-up of Minnie the white and brown goat, standing atop a stump at Winterthur. Photograph courtesy of the Winterthur Garden Blog, 2017.

Animals in intentional communities, as in the world at large, interact with humans in many different ways: as livestock, pets, and sources of food. However, given that these communities self-consciously choose which elements they want to keep or change from culture at large, the ways that animals find their way in is quite interesting.

The arts and crafts community of the Ardens, in northern Delaware, is one such example. This single-tax community, which includes Arden (c. 1900), Ardentown (c. 1922), and Ardencroft (c. 1930/1950), has shared their lives with pets since the early days of the twentieth century. Individual, family, and group photos equally feature canine, feline, and human community members. One such photograph features a young “Link” Ross giving Eleanor Stephens’ dog Fluffy a bath in a galvanized steel tub in the 1910s. Although many dogs dislike baths, Fluffy seems to be enjoying the attention.

In a grayscale photograph from the 1910s, a young Lincoln “Link” Ross gives Fluffy the dog a bath in a galvanized steel tub. With one arm around Fluffy in an embrace, he cleans her back with a bristle brush. Photograph courtesy of the Arden Craft Shop Museum.

Another photo from 1920 features a young Peg Dewees holding a cat in front of what would later become the front stone steps for a house at Harvey and Hillside Roads. And in an undated photograph from the 1920s, the Whiteside family included their pooch in a multi-generational photo from their family reunion. More pet photos can be found at Arden’s digitized photographic collection.

In a grayscale photograph from 1920, a young Peg Dewee holds a tabby cat in front of a hole that would later become the front steps of a house.

In a grayscale photograph from the 1920s, multiple generations of the Whiteside family pose, standing and sitting, for their family reunion. A white dog sits in the foreground.

The Oneida perfectionists, a nineteenth-century communal utopia, and later company town (the Oneida tableware company) in upstate New York, also had their share of animals. For one, the town raised farm animals like cows; in fact, in July, 1866, one cow apparently “hid her baby in the grass, and pretended not to know anything about it while Mr. B. and others were looking for it,” according to the Oneida Daily Journal. The other side of animal life is sometimes less than pleasant. For instance, among the group’s money-making ventures, the community was supported by a successful animal steel trap company. Many of these steel traps survive, as with this wide array on display at the Oneida Mansion House, which serves as a museum and home for Oneida descendants.

Animal steel traps line the walls of the Oneida Mansion House in Oneida, New York. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Guiler.

The Oneidans shared everything communally—including children’s toys and romantic partners—and thus the only pets they seem to have hosted were those of visitors. On November 6, 1866, the Daily Journal wrote of a visitor, Mr. William A. Bryan, who brought his “coach dog, white all over, and dotted with small black spots, which he seemed to think almost as much of as though it was a child.” And earlier that same year, the journal reported on the community cat, named Thomas, “a cat whose equal has never been known in this part of the country—a cat whose history is sometime to be written, we understand, by a learned and competent individual.” Unfortunately, the beloved feline had shown up with a fishhook in his cheek, which one Surgeon Dewey kindly removed. For more information on the Oneida community, see Hamilton College’s digital collection.

One way to view communal utopias and intentional communities is to understand them as a microcosm of wider society. And indeed, by looking at this small crosshatch of animal lives—as pets, farm stock, and hunted animals—we can see the many ways that animals exist in American society.


By: Katheryn Lawson, University of Delaware, American Civilization PhD Candidate

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