Tourism at Oneida
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.
Facade of the Oneida Mansion House
For Professor Tom Guiler’s fall semester class on American intentional communities, we ventured on a field trip to Upstate New York in order to explore the development and continued presence of Utopian ideals in the region. As both tourists and students, we were able to experience these communities with an outsider’s perspective – but also with the discerning eye of a scholar. Armed with background knowledge of each community, we examined the ways in which their histories were being presented to the public.
Oneida Rail Station – a late nineteenth century crowd gathers around a train, ready to board.
The impetus to travel for intellectual gain is not a modern idea, as the European Grand Tour paved the way for young aristocrats to expand their cultural horizons starting in the late seventeenth century. By the mid nineteenth century, tourism had grown exponentially as people of varied social classes had improved means to travel, both in Europe and the United States. With the addition of road infrastructure, steamboats, and railway technologies, industries of tourism flourished. For many lucky towns and locales, the increased volume of people was quickly recognized as a lucrative source of income – a critical prospect for a community withdrawn from conventional society, like the Oneida Perfectionists.
Oneida Tour Schedule and Prices – A broadside for the 1878 season outlines the available features for tourists and outlines prices.
The unique qualities of Oneida have contributed to an outsider fascination that has endured for over a century. The founding tenets of Oneida – complex marriage and a fully realized communal lifestyle – were deeply contentious prospects during the subdued and socially conservative Victorian era. In stark contrast with the morality of conventional society, the curious practices at Oneida attracted an inquisitive tourist audience. With the addition of a nearby railroad station in 1869, tourism to Oneida became easy. Guest rooms were readied, tours were crafted, and meals were prepared for the influx of curious crowds.
Room at Oneida Mansion – A bedroom available for overnight stay in the Mansion House features very high ceilings, floral curtains, striped wallpaper, and an easy chair.
Just like the 1870’s, Oneida’s storied Mansion House is open for tours and overnight guests today – and we lived to tell the tale! After spending an evening under the (very) high ceilings, we awoke the next morning to meet Curator Molly Jessup. Like the tours of the 1870’s, ours began in the front room of the house – once a parlor, now housing a small exhibit on the basic history of the community. Molly took us into the auditorium, the library, and sitting rooms – all conventional stops for a tour group in 1877 or 2017 that promoted the wealth and positive aspects of community life.
Perhaps the most interesting was the Oneida Community’s “museum” – cabinets of curiosities filled with all sorts of artifacts, from international newspapers and Chinese slippers to naturalistic shells and rocks. According to Molly, the cabinets are in their original location with original objects. These curiosities were said to have been popular with both visitors and Oneida community members. For a community so withdrawn from society and rather controlling of its relationship with the outside world, the emphasis on learning at Oneida is fascinating. Since education inherently inspires change, erudite young adults lead to later reforms within the community.
Cabinets of Curiosities – These cases feature all manner of naturalistic items such as shells, rocks, and coral. Also includes Chinese artifacts and a number of international newspapers.
It was refreshing to be able to experience a historic site in a manner similar to tourists of the past. For most house museums today, getting to spend the night in one is a rarity. Why did people visit places like Oneida? Why do they still? Perhaps the intrigue lies within the human psyche – everyone is constantly working towards a personal utopia. Of course, most don’t withdraw from society to find an idyllic life, but find it within the parameters of conventional society by making concessions. Yet the Oneida Perfectionists took the natural inclination one step further – crafting their Utopia free from many societal restraints. Visiting Oneida, regardless of supporting their specific beliefs, is a manifestation of human nature to the highest degree – showing that such a dream can come true, even if only for a little while.
By Allie Cade, WPAMC Class of 2018