Oneida Ltd is America’s biggest silverware manufacturer but began its existence as a religious commune based around free love and polygamy. Who knew?
If you’ve eaten a meal in an American restaurant, you’ve used the products of Oneida Limited. They are the single largest manufacturers of silverware in the world, producing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cutlery every year.
But they started very differently. Before Oneida Limited came the Oneida Community, an organization that was less into profits, not into cutlery at all, and extremely into exploring one another's bodies. In fact, the phrase “free love” originated with them. You’ll never look at a teaspoon the same way again.
A different knifestyle
Founded in 1848 just outside the upstate New York city from which it took its name, the commune was built upon founder John Humphrey Noyes’ certainty that Jesus had returned centuries before—in AD70—and humanity had a chance to attain heavenly perfection on Earth. This would necessarily involve turning their backs on certain traditions and conventions—Noyes had earlier had his preacher’s license revoked for proclaiming himself to be completely perfect, and been arrested for adultery—but he felt that he could get there.
The ways Noyes felt this collective perfection was attainable varied. There was a foregoing of individual property and the amassing of personal wealth in favor of communal ownership and a system in which everyone did a bit of every job. There was also, due to a passage in the book of Paul about there being no marriage in Heaven, a bit of a rethink going on in terms of domestic arrangements.
An absolute fork-fest
The idea was that anyone could have sex with anyone else—as long as both parties were willing, there was nothing to stop them. However, due to the community not being particularly pro-contraception, this seemed like it would present a pretty massive problem. The solution was the division of sex into two types—‘amative’, sex as an expression of love, and ‘propagative’, sex as a means of reproduction—and lessons in ‘male continence’, or not ejaculating.
Noyes’ wife Harriet had had several traumatically unsuccessful pregnancies. In setting up Oneida, the pair aimed to cause as little similar stress and trauma as possible for those living within their community. They wanted people to be able to have as much sex as they wanted without it leading to a lot of unwanted pregnancies. As luck would have it, Noyes had some unusual views on ejaculation, seeing it as ‘draining’. This, combined with their focus on sex as a means to a spiritual rather than physical climax, meant continence seemed like the dream solution.
These methods were taught in quite a hands-on manner, with post-menopausal women teaching younger men how to refrain from ejaculating, and—and there’s no way for this not to sound kind of sinister—older men showing younger women what to look out for. Less sinisterly, the female pleasure was incredibly heavily emphasized, and thanks to the community’s regular mutual criticism sessions, in which anyone could publicly criticize anyone else, men who didn’t make an effort were called out for it. Sex in which the male partner didn’t ejaculate was seen as social interaction, no more intimate than a chat. Some elements felt very modern for the era: contraception was men’s responsibility, women had the right to choose if and when they wanted to get pregnant, women took much more active roles in business and finance than in the outside world, and childcare was communal.
Speaking too spoon
However, as tends to happen far too often when looking into history, it all becomes a bit dodgier the closer you look. Rather than a free system where everyone was at liberty to seek pleasure however they wished, there were strict hierarchies in place. Noyes was one of the older men who was permitted to have sex with younger women, for instance, and ‘reserved’ most of the community’s virgins. His anti-ejaculation views became increasingly unhinged, with him comparing ejaculating during sex to committing murder, declaring “it is as foolish and cruel to expend one's seed on a wife merely for the sake of getting rid of it, as it would be to fire a gun at one's best friend merely for the sake of unloading it.”
The community’s communal childcare came with rules—if a parent and child had too strong a bond, they were forcibly kept apart. Women who wished to have children had to ask permission, which was only granted to those deemed the fittest, in a system that certainly bordered on eugenics. In fact, one member of the community, Charles J. Guiteau, went on to assassinate President James A. Garfield. And Noyes fled to Canada to avoid arrest for statutory rape.
The Oneida Community began to fall apart, but some members re-formed it as a company, making animal traps and silks, providing canning services, and dipping their toes into the silverware market. Eventually, they abandoned everything else and became global cutlery giants. That fork you ate your lunch with owes part of its existence to one very odd, deeply questionable man and his unusual views on sex.