Oneida: Polyandry and Fine Wedding Cutlery

Communal Spooning. And Forking.

The fat glossy stack passed through the mail slot and hit the floor with a pronounced whomp.  I got up to investigate and found, sitting underneath junk mail and a wedding invitation, a copy of Brides Magazine. I doubt my betrothed friends sent this. I love practical jokes, so I appreciate the humor of the mysterious sender. $6 well spent.

I avoid women’s magazines like Vogue and Glamour, sister mags of Brides Magazine. Flipping through those glossy, airbrushed pages is like diving into a strange world populated with painfully expensive shoes,  clothing and bad sex advice.  Brides Magazine touts the same format, just switch out career and sex advice for floral arrangements and wedding budget. (I bet if I read a glossy mom’s mag I would find eerie similarities. Substitute advice on placating temperamental bosses with experts on fussy babies. Dating, marriage, babies. Glamour, Brides, Mother & Baby. A magazine for every chapter of a woman’s life!)

After a long day I sat down with some tea and a pen, ready to ink my snark onto the pages. Near the end I found an ad that flooded a history lesson into my brain…

pg. 118: “The typical couple spends $22,947 on their wedding.” And this is without the honeymoon expenses.Though based on the $95 custom-made ring-bearer pillow on pg. 144, I see how expenses get out of control.

pg. 150: Debate over brides changing names. Bride rallying for name-change says, “We’re Mr. and Mrs. Klein, a new team.” Uh, if you’re a new team why not get yourself an entirely new name? Then both of you can share in the ass-pain of legal name-change. Go equality! Also: “Only 5 to 10 percent of marrying women will keep their maiden name.”

pg 196: Advice from a Drink Expert. “For a fun touch at your reception, pour wine from a big bottle, like a 1.5-liter magnum, a 3-liter Jeroboam, or even a 6-liter Methuselah.” How the hell does fumbling with an oversized bottle of booze at your wedding add a “fun touch”? I guess your guests will get a solid chuckle while you struggle to pour that Methuselah of Korbel into a tiny champagne glass. Way to self-depreciate for the sake of entertainment.

My head began to ache from the bright colors and strange stink emanating from the pages. Reading a bridal magazine is like slogging through a bloated prom issue of Seventeen. Nearly every page is an ad for dresses or jewelry. The bride cult is massive. I am slightly scared.

I blankly stared at page upon page of advertisement until I hit one for silverware: Oneida. Name sounds familiar, right? They make the fine silverware gifted to most newly married couples in the past century. Did you know they were a polygamous Utopian commune in the Victorian Era? Well now you do.

On two separate occasions, trivia-minded friends related the tale of 19th century Oneida Community, based in upstate New York. The 1800s were a time of massive social change wrought by a technology explosion and many religious communes emerged in this time period, only to fade away in the 20th century.

Oneida is interesting because of  the official polyandrous marriage practices. All men were married to all women. No lineages could form in this type of community because none of the men officially knew which babies were theirs. When born, babies went to the communal nursery that mothers could visit, although moms were restricted if caregivers in the nursery thought that the bond forming was too strong.

The theory behind their sexual practices was that jealousy could be eliminated through polyandry. If everyone was loving everyone else, jealousy is gone, right? I wonder if this really happened or if fights broke out in the commune or if tempers flared over lovers. I admit the scenario of free love is hard for my monogamy-cultured mind to grasp.

This NY Times article on the Oneida Community’s Mansion House contains an excellent quote from John Humphry Noyes, the founder:

“The new commandment is that we love one another, not by pairs, as in the world, but en masse.”

Hear that polyamorists? Your ideas have historical precedent.

What fascinates me most about the Oneida Community and the era of Utopian communes in the U.S. is that many wanted to change traditional marriage, either to a form found in biblical scriptures or something entirely new. You should note that the Mormon Church came about in this time period as well.

Many communes fail spectacularly. The religious fervor is dangerous fire to play with and often the small-scale communes dissolve. Oneida Community flourished for over a century and after its dissolution became a thriving silver-ware company.

The irony of a complex marriage commune manufacturing silverware for monogamous marriages worldwide is staggering. Sadly, Oneida Limited ceased production in 2004. Those silverware sets will live on as a tiny piece of marriage history in the US.

P.S. I must stay in the Oneida Community Mansion House (contains an automated video intro on the home page) at least once before I die. Adding to list of life goals.

3 thoughts on “Oneida: Polyandry and Fine Wedding Cutlery”

  1. Nice one! I know this is a sidenote of your article, but the “maiden names” thing struck me. The whole “last names” issue is a huge thing for me. For as long as I have had a conscious thought, I decided no way was I going to change my last name. It was actually a litmus test for some men I dated. If they buckled at the idea, then I stopped dating them. What gets me about it is that it is yet another area where women are supposed to be the flexible ones. I always push my male friends who are getting married about the last name thing. How do they feel if they had to change their name? I have yet to get a response other than utter consternation. Just like careers have been historically seen as “flexible” for the female partner in a relationship when a couple has kids, so are last names. Bleh..

    Who says you have to have the same last name to be a team? Not me.


  2. Fabulous post! I love your approach. I like spying on other subcultures. So often I’ll go off on a religion or lifestyle without looking into it for years. Good to check back in and see what they’re up to.

    I was born with my dad’s name, took my husband’s name at 23 because I liked it better than the one I was born with, then when I divorced him at 30 I legally changed my name to MY NAME, no man attached to it! One of the best things I’ve ever done. Too bad it cost a few hundred dollars to make the change, but taking a married name is free. Not fair!

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