There is something in modern man that makes him look at society and say “I could do this better, but smaller, and over there.” Few succeed in their vision. Although many utopian societies seem doomed from the outset, the Republic of Minerva was up against a unique challenge: creating a libertarian micronation on land that already had an owner. A Nevada real estate mogul raised $100 million to create a utopian society on Pacific reefs, without taxes, welfare or economic intervention, that lived chiefly off of tourism and fishing. The trouble was, the island nation of Tonga owned those reefs and the Minervans were forced to leave.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers, was a Protestant sect that broke from the Quakers in England in 1747. A charismatic Scottish woman called Mother Ann Lee had received visions from God; in 1774, she brought her followers to America. The Shakers are the quintessential American utopian commune to which all others are compared. At their height in 1830, there were over 18 Shaker communities from Kentucky to Maine, including one in Enfield, Connecticut.
Like most reformist movements of the time, the Shakers were agriculturally based, and believed in common ownership of all property, as well as the confession of sins. The Shaker credo demands duty to god, duty to man, separation from the world, simplicity of language, right use of property. As pacifists they were exempted from military service and became the United States’ first conscientious objectors during the Civil War. Shaker families consisted of “brothers” and “sisters” who lived in gender-segregated communal homes of up to 100 individuals. During the mandatory Sunday community meetings it was not uncommon for members to break into a spontaneous dance, which is supposedly where the Shaker moniker came from.
Unlike most of the other groups, the Shakers practiced celibacy, all the time, totally, totally celibate, all the time. So they weren’t having children to bolster their numbers. Membership came via converts or by adopting children. As the younger members left the community and older members passed away, converts were harder and harder to come by, many of the communities were forced to close. Of the original 19 communities, most had closed by the early 1900s. With one small Shaker community still in existence in Maine, the Shakers are by far the longest-lived American utopian experiment. Shaker influence can be found in fashion, furniture design, textiles, and music.
Perhaps the best-known utopian community in America, Brook Farm (or to give it its full name the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education) was founded in 1841 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, which is now in Boston. It was organized and directed by George Ripley, a former Unitarian minister and a leader in the Transcendental Club, an informal gathering of intellectuals of the Boston area, along with his wife, Sophia Dana Ripley, a woman of wide culture and academic experience. The commune was built on a 200-acre farm and centered on the ideals of radical social reform and self-reliance. The Ripley’s plan was to equally distribute the tasks of daily life while providing education for all participants; the end goal was a balance of work and leisure that would, above all, benefit the greater good. The commune paid $1 a day for work to men and women equally and provided housing, clothing, and food at cost, give or take, to all members and their dependents. For free tuition in the community school and one year’s worth of room and board, the residents were asked to complete 300 days of labor by either farming, working in the manufacturing shops, performing domestic chores or grounds maintenance, or planning the community’s recreation projects.
The project was financed by the sale of stock, a purchaser of one share automatically became a member of the institute, which was governed by a board of directors. The profits, if there were any, were divided into a number of shares corresponding to the total number of man-days of labour with every member entitled to one share for each day’s labour performed. According to the articles of agreement, Brook Farm was to combine the thinker and the worker, to guarantee the greatest mental freedom, and to prepare a society of liberal, cultivated persons. Brook Farm attracted not only intellectuals, boasting dozens of teachers in their member rolls, but farmers and craftsmen as well. Brook Farm did well in its first year and was visited by numerous dignitaries and writers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Brook Farm was noted particularly for its excellent school, which sought to establish “perfect freedom of relations between students and teaching body.” Discipline at the school came in the form of a gentle attempt to instill in the student a sense of personal responsibility. There were no set study hours, and each student was required to give a few hours a day to manual labour. There was an infant school, a primary school, and a college preparatory courses.
Although communal living had some disadvantages, for a while it seemed that the ideal of the founders would be realized. Within three years the community, had added four houses, workrooms, and dormitories. They began to refer to the community as a “Phalanx” when Brook Farm adopted some of the theories of the French Socialist Charles Fourier. The adoption of Fourierism meant change in the distribution of labor, with young people had to do all the dirty work like repairing roads, cleaning stables, and slaughtering animals. This caused many residents, especially the younger ones, to leave. All available funds were redirected into the construction of a large central building to be known as the Phalanstery, which burned to the ground during the party to celebrate its completion. This was about the same time they were hit with an outbreak of smallpox. Though the colony struggled on for a while, the enterprise gradually failed, closing in 1847. The land and buildings were sold in 1849, becoming a failed farm, Civil War training ground, orphanage and the Gethsemane Cemetery, the latter of which still stands today.
After visiting Brook Farm and finding it almost too worldly for their tastes, Bronson Alcott (the father of “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott) and Charles Lane founded the Fruitlands Commune in June 1843, in Harvard, Massachusetts. The idea was to return as nearly to the Garden of Eden as possible, but between the infighting, the brutal weather, and poor health, it amounted to a camping expedition in hell. It being a commune, the members were against the ownership of property, were political anarchists, believed in free love, and were vegetarians. The group of 11 adults and a small number of children were also forbidden to use any animal products such as honey, wool, beeswax, or manure. I’ve heard of people objecting to wool, even though sheep need to be shorn or they’ll turn into a walking tangle (Google Shrek the sheep), but manure. It’s the only animal bi-product that I will personally guarantee you the animal does not mind you taking. They were also not allowed to use animals for labor (okay) and only planted produce that grew with minimal intervention so as not to disturb worms and other organisms in the soil (what?).
As experimental settlements go, Fruitlands ranks among the more ill-conceived utopian communities. The few settlers had little farming experience and again no animal labor or fertilizer. The strict diet of grains and fruits left many in the group malnourished and sick; at best, it provided very little energy for manual labor. They possessed a vast library but could not read after dark, because candles and oil for lamps are both derived from animals. The division of labor was never fair. Many in the group of residents saw manual labor as spiritually inhibiting and soon the commune could not provide enough food to sustain its members. The infighting between co-founder Charles Lane, Alcott, and Alcott’s wife, Abigail, became so bitter that even ten-year-old Louisa wrote in her journal worried that her father would leave them. Alcott and Lane often went gallivanting across the country on pilgrimages to recruit members, leaving everyone else to do the heavy lifting. Fruitlands lasted through only seven months of 1843, from June to January, and it probably only remembered because of the cast of famous transcendentalists.
What’s a person to do if they love vegetables but hate squares and rectangles and things like rectangular bricks and square houses? This was the dilemma of 19the century phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler who wrote “Is the right angle the best angle? Why not employ some other mathematical figures as well as the square? Fruits, eggs, tubers, nuts… are made spherical in order to enclose the most material in the least compass.” He argued that building houses as octagons, a feasible shape to build that comes close to a circle, would lead to comfortable and naturally harmonious living. A number of builders and architects agreeds and octagonal buildings popped up across the country.
At the same time as the octagon fad, vegetarianism was taking off. In the 1840’s, people turned to veggies out of fear of the safety of meat in the days between the invention of rail shipment and the invention of refrigerated train cars. There were also moral concerns, beyond the obvious. Some felt that eating meat widened economic disparity and some likened meat production to slavery, so many abolitionists were also vegetarians.
One person was simultaneously taken with both ideas, a British man named Henry Clubb, who moved to New York City in the 1850s and worked New York Tribune under the tutelage of its founder and fellow vegetarian abolitionist Horace Greeley. Clubb worked to promote the American Vegetarian Society while at the same time writing fiery, principled abolitionist columns for the newspaper. When Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, leaving those states’ status as either free or slaveholding up in the air, Clubb came up with a plan to further both causes at once: he would settle a group of vegetarian abolitionists in Kansas, to extol the virtues of vegetarian self-sufficiency and influence the state against slavery.
Clubb bought ads in Eastern newspapers, which read, “Hasten you lovers of carrots, you eaters of unbolted grain!” In 1855, dozens of vegetarian abolitionists gathered in New York to discuss the Kansas settlement, which would be founded on principles including economic equality — everyone would purchase and own an equal share of the venture. Clubb screened the applicants carefully, and in the end fifty families were selected based on their demonstrated commitment to both abolitionism and vegetarianism.
In his 2015 book “The Vegetarian Crusade,” Adam Shrpintzen writes, “Colonists were required to sign an oath promising to abstain from intoxicating liquors, tobacco, and animal flesh as a precondition of residency.” That’s me out, right there. As Clubb began to draft the plans, he drew inspiration from Orson Squire Fowler, who himself was a member of the American Vegetarian Society. A vision emerged for Octagon City, a place where all dwellings would be eight-sided, and would each face inward toward a larger octagon, which would contain a school, park, church, library, and meetinghouse. Members would own their individual dwellings privately, as well as a plot of farmland behind their house, and possess equal shares in the central structures. The design was thought to promote the values of health, resourcefulness, communalism, and, of course, the best use of space. Octagon City “offered residents the best of both worlds — a private home inside of a communal land mass. This undoubtedly appealed to vegetarians, who were the living incarnation of the competing forces of urban sophistication and rural romanticism,” according to Shprintzen.
In 1856, the land was purchased and settlers enthusiastically began planning for the journey. Octagon City was one of many anti-slavery settlements being planned for Kansas at the time, and Northeastern newspapers wrote approvingly of the plan. Midwestern newspapers, not so much. The Chicago Tribune published a mocking article saying that “philosophers, fiddlers, phrenologists, vegetarians” were no match for the frontier, which was fit only for “beef-eating men.” This didn’t deter the vegetarians, who set out on the difficult 1,200 mile journey by way of wagon, boat, and foot. The early settlers immediately began building, but progress was slow. By the time the second wave arrived, very little had been accomplished. There were no communal buildings. Only one new home was constructed, a basic log cabin with a dirt floor, and four walls. Clubb himself lived in an abandoned Osage wigwam. The remaining residents lived in cloth-covered shacks. There were only two ovens, one plow, and no octagons.
Some newcomers turned around almost immediately upon arrival. Others, though, were more determined. For a while, they continued working to build the colony, subsisting well enough on a “diverse diet of wild peas and beans, beds of onions, boiled greens, Johnny cakes, pumpkins, squash, melons, cucumbers, and potatoes.” But it was obvious that they were not prepared for the coming winter, and the looming threat of starvation , coupled with growing conflicts with pro-slavery neighbors, led many to abandon Octagon City in October of 1857. A few vegetarians stayed in the area, even after it became clear the colony itself was done-for. Those who remained developed friendships with the local Osage Indians, who often shared food with the vegetarians and taught them the best practices for growing vegetables in the Kansas soil. Osage folklore actually contains reference to vegetarians — the tribe was said to have been born of a union between two competing tribes, one exclusively hunters and the others exclusively farmers. The Osage called their vegetarian ancestors the “peace people,” which is probably why they were so helpful. Today, there is no physical trace of Octagon City, but there are still some octagonal houses scattered throughout the country.
When you see fancy silverware, you don’t immediately think of free love communes (or maybe you do, I’m not here to judge). But if it’s a set of Oneida silverware, you should. The Oneida Community in upstate New York was one of the most intriguing of the dozens of utopian communities that sprang up in 19th-century America. Most were based loosely on the theories of the French socialist Charles Fourier, who believed some things that seemed radical in his time but reasonable in ours, like that traditional marriage could harm a woman’s rights as a person, and things that still seem weird, like people should live in four-story buildings with the richest on top. While most utopian communities were short-lived, Oneida lasted over three decades, from 1848 to 1880, and was guided by the idiosyncratic religious views of its founder and leader, John Humphrey Noyes.
According to Spencer Klaw, author of “Without Sin: the Life and Death of the Oneida Community,” Vermont-born John Humphrey Noyes experienced a conversion during a religious revival in 1831 and preached a Perfectionist style of Christianity that he interpreted to mean he could do no wrong. Noyes became the hub of a group of men and women, eventually numbering about 300, who saw monogamy as impure because God demanded variety in every facet of life, including sex. The best way to counter monogamy was for the continual change of partners, under the supervision of Noyes, of course.
All the men at Oneida were thought to be linked in divine marriage to all the women in what Noyes called complex marriage. Many community members had two or three different partners a week. To avoid unwanted pregnancies and to insure maximum pleasure for women, the Oneidans practiced coitus reservatus, or, as Noyes called it, male continence — intercourse without climax. Couples found in “idolatrous” relationships, i.e. monogamous, or who broke the rule of male continence were chastised publicly at group discussion meetings. Couples could request to have a child, but children lived in separate quarters, apart from their parents, and were raised communally.
Communal living in Oneida had advantages. There was great group interested in music, painting, and poetry. Games and sports were also an important part of everyday life. Work was looked on as a joyous, shared activity. Community leaders put this cooperative spirit to good economic use. They established a variety of businesses, the most successful of which, the eponymous flatware company, is today the world’s largest manufacturer of stainless steel knives, forks and spoons.
Noyes took advantage of his position as sexual arbiter. Raise your hand if you didn’t see that coming. He indoctrinated his followers with the idea of “ascending fellowship,” where the community elders, who were considered especially godly, led younger believers heavenward through the holy pleasures of sex. Shortly after puberty, boys and girls were assigned a succession of older partners. Teenagers commonly slept with people in their 50’s or 60’s, though they would get to choose partners their own age after a while. There’s evidence that Noyes kept 12 and 13 year old girls for himself.
As you might expect in a situation where people had their sexual partners chosen for them, possessiveness and jealousy were rife. The problems surrounding complex marriage contributed to the community’s demise. Young people, in particular, got tired of being assigned older lovers they often found undesirable.
The response to Oneida from outsides ranged from the titillated curiosity of tourists to the moral outrage of puritanical ministers who wanted it gone. The latter attitude eventually sealed Oneida’s fate. In late June 1879, John Humphrey Noyes secretly left for Canada under threats of prosecution by local clergymen. With its leader gone and internal disputes intensifying, the community abandoned the practice of complex marriage and focused on its business interests. The surprising thing is not that Oneida failed but that it lasted as long as it did.
Attempted utopian communities may seem like a relic of Victorian or Edwardian times, but the drive to create an idyllic living situation persists. Where some people see Warren County, NC, the former home of many antebellum plantations, as an eternally crippled consequence of exploitation, civil rights leader Floyd McKissick saw in the county potential for prosperity and inclusivity in the form of a town called “Soul City.” In Soul City, McKissick envisioned a wide boulevard that would lead visitors past an executive office complex, industrial park, and manmade lake into the development, which would include shopping centers, a county-wide high school, bike trails, and a space to grow food. What made his vision different from the other communities we’ve talked about is that Soul City would be a town built by African-Americans.
McKissick thought Soul City would be home to 50,000 people, black and white, and generate 24,000 jobs within the first 30 years of its existence. He also believed that its presence in the rural American South would palliate the 1960s’ urban crisis, which he thought came at least in part because areas like Warren County did not offer African-Americans a path toward economic growth. The 1950s and ‘60s comprised a period of extreme flux for African-Americans in both rural and urban areas. Frustrated with economically depressed, segregationist regions, many African-Americans in the rural South moved to cities, where they would often face further discrimination in the form of police brutality, job discrimination, and housing inequality. Urban crime and pollution reached alarming heights, and whites began to abandon city centers in a movement known as “white flight.” Many African-Americans did not have the means to do the same and were effectively shackled to rapidly declining urban centers.
While McKissick would march with Rev King and serve as President of the Congress on Racial Equality, he grew frustrated with the Civil Rights Movement, believing it didn’t go far enough. In 1968, McKissick shifted strategy again, relying on capitalism to combat the racism that fueled the destitute conditions of black neighborhoods. And Warren County was certainly destitute. In 1969, per capita income in Warren County was $1,638, about $12K today, annually. The median family income for black families was less than the national per-person income. Dropout rates hovered at 45%, and its younger population was fleeing for cities elsewhere.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson had launched the Model Cities Program, a component of his War on Poverty. We sure do love declaring war on thing. We don’t fix the thing, but we sure did declare war on it. Rightly or wrongly, Model Cities saw the urban crisis as a technical problem that could be solved with technical solutions, like an influx of federal dollars into infrastructure improvements. President Johnson supported McKissick’s vision, and in January 1969 McKissick announced that his utopian, black-built community — one of 14 Model Cities projects, and the only Model City project built from the ground up — would become a reality on 5,000 acres of Warren County land.
Less than a week after McKissick made his historic announcement, Richard Nixon would officially become President of the United States. Despite a number of racist policies, like the War on Drugs and “Southern Strategy,” a plan to use racism to get white southerners to vote republican, Nixon supported McKissick’s vision, too, if only for political reasons. By issuing federal funds to “enterprising African-Americans” in a practice known as grantsmanship, Nixon thought he could transform “black militants into black Republicans.”
Armed with $17 million, $14 million of it from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Model Cities’ federal sponsor, McKissick broke ground in November 1973. McKissick and the black-owned architectural firm Ifill, Johnson & Hanchard constructed houses, an innovative water systems plant, a health clinic, and an industrial center. McKissick at the time said he was “extremely happy with our progress.” But only 33 people lived within Soul City’s borders that year, a number that wouldn’t be helped by the next year’s oil crisis, which would cause building costs to soar, sometimes doubling overnight. Nor did it help that Soul City became the object of bad press and obstructive politics. Negative media coverage prompted politicians, ostensibly worried about “wasting taxpayer money,” to demand a federal investigation into McKissick’s project.
While subsequent investigations cleared McKissick and company of any wrongdoing, by December 1975, it was too late. Soul City lost any private investment opportunity it once had, with companies like General Motors pulling out of talks with McKissick. By 1979, only around 150 people, 3% of the original projection, called Soul City home. HUD too would pull its support from Soul City, and auction it off for $1.5 million.
And that’s… There was also an attempted utopia in Texas, created by cereal magnate CW Post, named Post, TX. Construction of the city was going well, with 35 homes plus other buildings complete, when state officials realized the town could not be the county seat, as Post wanted, because it was 4 miles too far from the center of the county. So Post moved all the buildings he could and just abandoned the rest. Thanks…