If you own a nice set of stainless steel silverware, there’s a decent chance that it was made by the Oneida Silverware company. You may think that this is just an ordinary company, but you would be wrong. It was actually founded by a strange religious cult in 19th-century New York state.
The cult was founded by John Humphrey Noyes, an aspiring preacher and former student of Yale University’s School of Divinity. It was at Yale that Noyes developed the religious theory that would guide his cult: the doctrine of perfectionism. This doctrine stated that humans had the ability to become physically and spiritually perfect, which he believed he had achieved. When he was kicked out of Yale for his beliefs, he began wandering the Northeast United States, preaching to anyone who would listen.
In 1837, after meeting a married woman and falling in love with her, Noyes added the doctrine of “spiritual polyamory” to perfectionism. According to him, traditional marriage was selfish and denied people the ability to love everyone equally. Though he did not marry the object of his desire, he did marry an heiress named Harriet Holton. This did not keep him from having relationships with other women.
In 1846, Noyes and nine of his followers entered a marriage contract whereby they were all married to each other. This did not sit well with the authorities, who had him arrested for adultery. Upon his release shortly thereafter, he moved his little cult to some land near Oneida Creek in New York. They began to call themselves “The Community.”
As Noyes felt more powerful, his rules grew stranger and stricter. He required new members to live together. Parents who showed their children too much love would not be allowed to see them until they could prove that they did not love their children more than anyone else in the group. Even worse, children were forced to engage in sexual acts with older members of the community once they went through puberty.
Noyes also strictly controlled pregnancy in the group. If a woman wanted to become pregnant, she and the potential father had to ask permission. They would only be allowed to procreate if they were deemed spiritual enough by a committee.
Oddly, despite all the child abuse and control, Noyes did encourage equality between the sexes. Women and men performed the same chores, and there was no sex-based division of labor.
By the 1860s, the community needed money. They tried several different enterprises, including selling produce and making leather goods, but these did not bring in enough. It wasn’t until 1879 that they decided to open the own silverware company, naming it Oneida Silverware after the nearby creek.
When the law began to crack down on the strange marriage arrangements at Oneida, Noyes fled to Canada and abandoned his followers. But they still owned Oneida Silverware collectively. At this point, a corporation was formed that distributed shares to community members. The company did quite well, and it was the largest manufacturer of silverware in the United States in the mid-20th century. Many people have their goods in their silverware drawers at home.
So, the next time you sit down to a nice meal, take a look at your cutlery. You may be using a fork that was developed by a strange cult. Bon appetit!