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The people who built Utopia two centuries ago

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Communes once dotted the United States. Their occupants believed that if we just gave up sexual prudery and practice free love, the world would be better. Others abhorred the use of animals as servants and tried to live without animal products or labor. Others fell in love with the concept of socialism. Yes, it was a crazy time in our nation's history known as . . . the nineteenth century.

Is there a more alluring concept than a perfect world? There are thousands of fictional stories of perfect worlds emerging from destruction, perfect worlds that come to destruction, perfect worlds that are not all they seem, and perfect worlds looking in on less perfect ones. Utopia is the ultimate futuristic concept, which is strange because it's been around as long as there have been societies. Sometimes, when science, opportunity, and morality are just right, people don't just tell stories about utopia, they try to build it. There are eras full of such attempts. The nearest one to us right now was the fabled sixties, when people roamed the cities and countryside trying to use peace, love, and Nehru jackets to make the world a perfect place. Turns out, that had all been done before. The greatest age of American utopianism was in the 1800s. Communities and colonies sprang up all over the land, trying to make a model society. If any of them had worked out, we'd be perfect by now.

Fourier: The Socialist Leader of His Day

Charles Fourier was a Socialist before it was cool. He was also socialist after it was cool. Born in 1772, in France, he lived through the French Revolution and its after-effects, and emerged as a socialist writer in the early 1800s. Some of his more radical social ideas have only caught on recently, key among them being a defense of homosexuality and women's rights. His economic ones, however, spread like wildfire in America right away. He believed that people should split into primarily-agrarian, self-sufficient communities, or 'phalanxes,' in which work was voluntary and all productions were the property of the entire group.


Fourierism caught on in a big way in America, with many communities trying to identify themselves with Fourier's writings as much as possible. America is dotted with the remains of colonies like The Sodus Bay Phalanx, The North American Phalanx, and the Wisconsin Phalanx. One colony, Brook Farm, toasted Fourier as 'the second coming of Christ.' Unfortunately, being a great believer in Fourier did not make anyone a particularly good farmer or craftsperson, and the American phalanxes were an undistinguished lot, faltering and going out of business quickly. Brook Farm was a particular disappointment, since it had a number of celebrity endorsements.


The All-Stars of Utopianism

Brook Farm was founded in 1840 and closed by 1847. It flamed briefly, but brightly. One of its founding members was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who went on to write a novel, The Blithedale Romance, based on his time there. Brook Farm was endorsed by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a famous writer and educator. Margaret Fuller, the writer, editor, feminist, and officially-named "Best Read Person in New England," visited the community regularly. For its time and place, Brook Farm was a celebrity hub.


Brook Farm started out not as a radical commune based on farming but as an official joint stock company based around a school. The community took in children from pre-school to high school age, and offered adult education as well. It was regarded highly enough to attract international students - as well it might. Elizabeth Peabody is now seen as one of the pioneers of early education, and her influence was all over the school. All members of the community were encouraged to work at what they did best, and each person was paid an equal wage. Although the community was never prosperous, it got along well. Until it decided to consciously embrace Fourierism. The community decided to put out a newspaper, The Harbinger, which encouraged the principles of Fourierism. Not content with their dependency on the outside world, the Brook Farmers tried to move to an self-sufficient agrarian society.

They prepared for their new community by beginning construction on a massive building called the Phalanstery. This building, conceived by Fourier, would hold 1500 people, and enclose a central square that was supposed to provide work space for all the happy Fourierians. Brook Farm's Phalanstery drove the company into deep debt. They imposed austerity measures, cutting out meat, butter, coffee and tea. This caused discontent among the boarders and the students. Perhaps this discontent was taken out on the Phalanstery, because the building burned to the ground soon after. Brook Farm dissolved in 1847, leaving its founder thousands of dollars in debt.


Brook Farm had enough of a reputation, during its brightest days, to inspire a commune that transformed the life of another literary star. Louisa May Alcott spent some of her childhood on Fruitlands, a radical transcendentalist commune that her father founded. Amos Bronson Alcott was a man of strict principles. He had once started a school in which no corporal punishment was delivered without a unanimous vote, including the vote of the person to be punished, in favor of it. He also told misbehaving students to hit his hand, since he thought that a lack of discipline showed that the teacher had failed. Fruitlands eventually compromised many of those principles.


To begin with, Alcott did not believe in private property, but found he had to purchase the land for Fruitlands all the same, or yield it to someone who did believe in private property. He announced the founding of Fruitlands in a local paper, and asked all to come freely. When not many women came, there had to be some compromise on work at Fruitlands, since there were some domestic tasks that the women didn't care to do, but the men didn't have the skill for. Fruitlands residents were meant to own no animals, and use no creatures for labor. The stony New England soil soon changed that. Fruitlands lasted less than a year, but before it was dissolved, the lack of women caused the residents to debate yet another principle; free love.

Love the One You're With

Fruitlands dismissed the idea of free love quickly - at Mrs. Alcott's insistence. But nineteenth century communes were one of the idea's early proponents. The most infamous commune to embrace this was the Oneida Community in New York. Oneidans believed that the second coming of Christ already happened. If it had, then it was within human ability to make paradise on earth, and they aimed to try. One of the doctrines they observed was Complex Marriage.


Many Oneida residents believed wholeheartedly in eugenics. They wished to create the most perfect children they could. When they wanted to become parents, they were paired with the best psychological and physical match. (It's no surprise that the head of the colony was judged to be the best match for many women.) The resulting children were raised communally in a designated building. This was a voluntary program, but it created a lot of scandal, considering it started in the 1860s. Other residents chose who they would partner with, but their marriage had certain conditions. Once women were old enough to not be fertile anymore, they were encouraged to introduce teenage boys to sex. Men were encouraged to do the same with teen girls (without the need for infertility in their case). The founder of the community, John Noyes, encouraged relationships between the 'non-devout' and the 'devout,' hoping that the more devout would influence others.


Eventually, pressures from the outside, as well as young people who wanted a traditional marriage instead of being available for 'instruction' by the older members of the community, cause the practice of complex marriage to be abandoned and the entire community to re-organize itself as a bunch of traditionally married people who held stock in a company.

Sexual practices also broke up the community of Home, Washington. Home was a late utopian society, founded in 1895. Not highly organized, it was a loose society of anarchists, communists, and nudists. There were also a group of people who didn't much appreciate the nudity of others. The community divided between 'nudes and prudes,' fought, and eventually dissolved in the 1900s.


Prosperity and Celibacy:

Which isn't to say it was sex that ended utopian movement everywhere. In fact, one of the most successful utopian communities was founded on, and ruined by, piety, celibacy, and a good work ethic. Although most utopian communes had perpetual money trouble, this one, at its height, had a surplus of nearly two million dollars. It's a good indication that a place will be money-focused when it's called Economy.


Old Economy Village, Pennsylvania flourished under the guidance of Frederick Rapp. Unlike the agrarians, Rappists kept up with technology. They also didn't care for subsistence farming. They produced lumber, leather, and silk, and did so well enough that they dominated the local trades. Their planned town spread quickly, and they made it a showpiece. They had a floral park and a deer park, a symphony and schools and a museum. They even had a labyrinth. And they had time to solve it. The Old Economites were Harmonists, a radical Christian bunch who believed in the strict practice of celibacy. This worked out just fine, when the colony was founded by young couples who chose the lifestyle in 1804. By 1832, when the children of those young couples grew up, they were not so enthused with the prospect.


A good third of the community broke away from the concept of celibacy, and it must be said that the economy suffered. Rapp, whose heart was set on a celibate community of workers, music enthusiasts, and deer tenders died soon after. Although the town's investments continued to bring in a great deal of money for some time, over the years, more young people abandoned the community. By 1890, the town was in debt. By 1905, the community was disbanded entirely.

Is Utopia the Way of the Future or the Past?

We still look forward, picturing a new and perfect society. Books and TV shows show the different ways this could happen. Avatar tells us to just go back to nature and shut ourselves off from the outside world. Star Trek tells us we should trust in technology to rid us of society's woes and go out to discover other civilizations. Some future utopias require that we abandon government. Others insist that we build a better one. But these different perspectives aren't necessarily visions of the future. They're looks at the past. The past that clearly didn't work out.


Via NPS, Brittanica, VCU, Age of the Sage, American Transcendentalism, New York History, PA Turnpike, and Old Economy Village.