Free Love, Free Market [Planet Money]

“(Pierrepont Noyes) had a motto – nobody rich, nobody poor.”

“They think ownership and selfishness make people unhappy.”

I listen to podcasts to stir things up. To challenge my beliefs and add new-idea-pebbles into my fishbowl.  I live in a capitalist-based nation where the very infrastructure celebrates and lionizes the belief that “trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”  The only other apparent options—socialism and communism—are vilified.

When I think of the Oneida brand, I think of forks, knives and spoons. I think of an idyllic town in New York State, with green, rolling hills. I don’t think of communes, free-love, wife swapping, or…”communal capitalism” or “industrial socialism.”


The idea of putting “communal” and “capitalism” together or “industrial” and “socialism” into a belief system—and an enormously successful belief system—was a jolt. Which is why I like this episode of Planet Money: new-idea-pebble.

Both of these terms—”communal capitalism” and “industrial socialism”—are connected to the Oneida brand, with a fascinatingly colorful history.

The utopian Perfectionist Community, was started in Oneida, NY in 1848, during a period of “religious zeal” and commune-emergence.  Its charismatic leader was John Humphrey Noyes.

The commune needs to find something to make and sell, and Noyes figures out how to work with one member—a talented trap maker—to mechanize the mass production of traps. Given folks want fur-for-fashion, this proves to be successful, and the commune is soon producing and selling 200,000 animal traps a year.

Noyes decides to expand the business into the world of flatware, which again proves successful, generating more money.

“…all of the things that come into the commune – all of the money is shared. Nobody owns anything. They call it Bible communism. And it’s not like Marxist communism. It literally just means commune-ism.”

“…at a time when America’s brand of go-it-alone, profit-or-bust capitalism is not working for everyone, it’s a reminder that our country’s economic history is not all robber barons and Puritans. People have found all kinds of ways to thrive here. Let’s call this one communal capitalism.”

93,000-square foot home

The success of the business is profound, giving them the resources to build a 93,000-square foot mansion in 1862 in which about 250-members lived.  They can afford to hire people from town to work, freeing up members—who only have to work a few hours a day—to read, put on plays, and explore life. The members share in the success of the operations.

Noyes believes in capitalism; he believes it will produce a global market that will be good for mankind. But his form of capitalism is not our current form. It might more rightfully be considered an early form of the “sharing economy.” “Sharing capitalism.”

“But they are not just sharing money. That’s the other unusual part of John’s Perfectionist society. They’re sharing spouses, which is part of their Perfectionism, too. They think ownership and selfishness make people unhappy. So share. John has made ground rules to keep things from getting out of control. First of all, it’s not called free love. It’s called complex marriage.”

The podcast goes into some detail regarding the rules of “complex marriages,” which is a fascinating listen about man/woman stuff.

Fallen Leader

It then gets to a stage in the commune’s history where a significant shift in its structure occurs, a shift triggered by stories of Noyes sleeping with underage girls.  In 1879, Noyes hears the authorities are coming after him and he bolts for Canada. The commune members, left without their leader—but still running a successful business—have to decide what to do.

In 1880, they create a joint stock company with shares owned by the adult commune members. They end the complex marriage and form nuclear families. They change their lifestyles in a significant way.

“…everybody now owns their own stuff. And for a lot of them, it really freaks them out.“

With this new corporate entity in place, the operations move into yet another phase, potentially heading toward ruin, until Noyes’ son, Pierrepont—a “very extraordinary person…bigger than life”—steps in. “His religion was business.” He focuses on flatwear and silver plate and marketing. By the mid 1920’s, they’re buying up other companies.

“Oneida is a runaway American capitalist success. But there were some things from the old commune that Pierrepont kept alive. He had a motto – nobody rich, nobody poor. So when it came to their workers, Oneida did things their way. Pierrepont called it industrial socialism. Oneida built its workers a town with parks and ballfields, electricity, water, sewage. It paid half the salary of the schoolteachers there. And executive pay was kept very low. And when the company was going through hard times, executives took pay cuts before the workers did. Pierrepont’s workers, the guys on the line, loved him so much that one year, they pooled their money and they bought him a blue Cadillac.”

Fast forward to the 1960’s and the company goes public, changing its structure yet again. Outsiders come in; executive pay goes up; the product is sold in Walmart, its value depreciates. Industrial socialism gets booted. Competition is stiff and the company eventually files for bankruptcy. The name still exists, but as a result of merging with another company.

Responsible Capitalism

“The Oneida family is still kicking around up there. And they’re really proud of this company. They see what Oneida did as an experiment in responsible capitalism. They made money. But they also took care of each other. And for a while, anyway, it worked.”

Over a more than 150-year history, Oneida managed to operate under various permutations of capitalism/socialism: communal capitalism, industrial socialism, responsible capitalism, suggesting that, perhaps, “profit-optimizing” capitalism isn’t the only way.

Planet Money: “the economy explained.”

 More Information:

“For 33 years under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, the religiously-based Perfectionist Community challenged contemporary social views on property ownership, gender roles, child-rearing practices, monogamous marriage, and work.  From their insistence on life-long learning and vigorous health, the realization of self in advancing the good of the whole, they developed a work ethic and well of industriousness so deep it flowed into one of the most impressive manufacturing companies of the 20th century.” []

  1. Oneida, Oneida Community Mansion House, A National Historic Landmark
  2. The Oneida Community, Randall Hillebrand, NY
  3. Saints, Sinners and Reformers: John Humphrey Noyes, John H. Martin, The Crooked Lake Review, Fall 2005
  4. Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table, Ellen Wayland-Smith
  5. Oneida Utopia, Tony Wonderly (to be released winter 2017)

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