As mentioned in chapter 2 of The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge, Rebecca Maxwell put on clothing based on that worn by women in the Oneida Perfectionist community. But what was the Oneida Perfectionist community? Why was it considered scandalous? And how did Rebecca happen to see an engraving of the attire worn there?
You might recall how hippies in the 1960s were said to have gone off and formed communes and lived off the land? Well, there were quite a few people in this country between 1815 and 1860 who had similar ideas. They organized communities where everything was held in common and people worked for the community’s benefit. Most didn’t last long, falling victim to inadequate financial means or internal dissension.
One of the most famous, and oddest, of these communities was that of the Perfectionists of Oneida in New York State. This community was founded in 1848 and endured until 1879. It was based on the ideas of a minister named John Humphrey Noyes (1811 – 1886). Noyes had radical religious ideas. He believed people could become perfect, that is, able to live completely in accordance with God’s will and sin no more. To mainstream religious groups, this was scandalous, because it seemed to imply that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was not necessary for salvation.
More scandalous yet, Noyes believed that people should live communally and love everyone equally . . . and unlike some, Noyes extended that idea to sex. Everyone at Oneida was married to everyone else, spiritually and carnally. It wasn’t “free love:” there were rules about with whom you could have sexual relations, with the goal of improving your spiritual state as well as attending to the needs of your body. Exactly how this was managed is more than I can go into here. However, it’s worth noting that men and women entered into sex, as with everything else in the community, as equals.
The last major oddity about Oneida was that over time it shifted from farming to manufacturing as its main source of income. Indeed, when the community collapsed, the manufacturing business was formed into a joint stock company which went on to successfully produce Oneida brand cutlery up to the beginning of the 21st century.
In the early 1870s, a journalist named Charles Nordhoff visited Oneida, along with every other remaining commune in the United States. He wanted to see if communes were a viable way for working men to achieve financial independence. His book, The Communistic Societies of the United States, came out in 1875, and is still in print. It had several engravings, including one opposite page 282 showing Oneidans at leisure. It was seeing that engraving that gave Rebecca the idea of creating the outfit she wore on her trip to the Taylors’ home.