The Crazy Story Behind Oneida Silverware

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!

Next Article
  • Weird Food of the Middle Ages

    People often like to romanticize the Middle Ages, imagining it as a time of knights and princesses, all dressed in elaborate medieval garb. Some even dream about going back in time to experience life during that time, and renaissance fairs and a popular dinner show have capitalized quite well on this obsession. But many people...

    Read More
  • Witches and Alewives: The Historical Connection

    From The Wizard of Oz to Halloween costumes, the archetypal image of a scary witch typically includes a tall, pointy hat, a cauldron, and a broom, among other accessories. But where did this popular conception arise? Many would be surprised to learn that our idea of what a witch looks like is based on the...

    Read More
  • America’s Secret Female President

    Edith Bolling Galt Wilson seemed an unlikely prospect for running one of the most powerful countries in the world. The second wife of President Woodrow Wilson was born in 1872 to a very poor family from the mountains of Virginia. Though she was given a chance to go to college, she dropped out because her...

    Read More
  • The Reality Behind the Legend of the Golden Fleece

    If you are familiar at all with Greek mythology, you have probably heard about the legend of the Golden Fleece. In this story, Jason (a Greek mythological hero) gathered a group of fellow-heroes together. This group became known as the Argonauts because their ship was named Argo, and Jason was their leader. The purpose of...

    Read More
  • Aaron Burr: Would-Be King

    Aaron Burr, one of the United States’ founding fathers and its one-time Vice President, has generally gone down in history as a bad guy because of the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. But for some reason, most people don’t know anything about another chapter in his life...

    Read More
  • Ancient Crocodile Species Identified

    A research team made up of paleontologists from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Texas has identified a previously unknown species of prehistoric crocodile. The ancient reptile fossils were found in Arlington, Texas, a busy city located right in the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area. The massive crocodile, which could reach lengths of up to 20...

    Read More
  • The Murder and Lynching that Changed America

    April 26, 1913 was supposed to have been a good day for 13-year-old Mary Phagan. It was Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived. She was off for the day from her job at the National Pencil Company. Her plans included stopping by work to pick up her pay and then joining family...

    Read More
  • Female Viking Warrior Grave Identified

    In the 1880s, a Viking grave was excavated in the town of Birka in Sweden. It was obviously the grave of a warrior because it was filled with grave goods signifying as much. Along with weapons, like an axe, arrows, shields, a battle knife, a spear, and a sword, two war horses were also found...

    Read More