Episode 777: Free Love, Free Market : Planet Money How a free-love commune embraced the free market and became a blockbuster brand.
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Episode 777: Free Love, Free Market

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Episode 777: Free Love, Free Market

Episode 777: Free Love, Free Market

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Just a quick warning - today's show has some adult themes.

Last week, I was in central New York in the town of Oneida. It's really beautiful up there. It's blue mountains and rolling fields and farmhouses. And I was up there exploring this place called the Mansion House. It's this massive, brick house on a hill with a blue-slate roof. It was built in 1862.

And back then - back in the 1800s - the Mansion House was a commune. Hundreds of people lived there together, and many of their descendants actually grew up in this house. Kelly Noyes Rose was showing me around the basement.

KELLY NOYES ROSE: Look at the tunnel.

KING: Oh, my God.

ROSE: And it's still drippy where it used to be.

KING: Where she and all the other kids used to play.

ROSE: It was our play house, this house.

KING: Really?

ROSE: Yes - tons and tons of kids. It was sort of free and open. It was our family's house, right?

KING: And then I went to the library, where I met Nola DeSimone. She's also a descendant of the commune. She actually still lives here. She was visiting with Al Noyes. They're both 82.

NOLA DESIMONE: We are two days apart in age.

KING: And how are you related?

DESIMONE: We are first cousins.

KING: Back when they were growing up, their parents worked for the company. The company was Oneida Limited, the flatware maker - knives and spoons and forks. Oneida had a very big factory up here.

Did you get Oneida silver when you got married?


KING: What pattern?

DESIMONE: It was Reigning Beauty. It was very plain and with a little crown.

KING: And how about you? Did you guys use Oneida?

AL NOYES: Well, yeah (laughter). We'd run out of town, probably, if we didn't.

KING: Their parents owned the Oneida company. And as kids, these guys had a very idyllic, all-American life. But the Oneida commune that came before the company - that had a very colorful history.

DESIMONE: It wasn't discussed. No, I don't think - what?

NOYES: Well, no. Absolutely. I agree with you wholeheartedly. It wasn't discussed. But, also, the people who had practiced that were gone.

KING: The practice was spouse swapping, free love. The Oneida commune had some sex stuff. The Oneida company was a place where they took all that sex stuff and put it away in a silverware drawer.


KING: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Noel King.


And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, the story of Oneida. It's an iconic, all-American brand. And this story has got it all, a charismatic founder, artisanal mastery, marketing genius and free love.

KING: And at a time when America's brand of go-it-alone, profit-or-bust capitalism is not working for everyone, it's a reminder that our country's economic history is not all robber barons and Puritans. People have found all kinds of ways to thrive here. Let's call this one communal capitalism.


VANEK SMITH: In the 1840s, there is a lot happening in the U.S. It's the Industrial Revolution. We're mass-producing stuff, moving to cities, working in factories.

KING: It's also the time of the Great Awakening.

VANEK SMITH: The second Great Awakening.

KING: Yes, the second Great Awakening. This is a time of religious zeal. People are starting to interpret Christianity in all of these different ways. This is when the Mormons and the Adventists pop up. And the Shakers see big growth. And all over the Northeast, these groups are getting together. They're leaving civilization. They're setting up in the woods, and they're creating communes.

TONY WONDERLY: They would make shoes, or they would make chairs. They would do things that people did in the Middle Ages, you know? And they would make brooms. That was very common.

VANEK SMITH: That's Dr. Tony Wonderly. He's an Oneida historian. And in the 1840s, there are dozens of these types of communes in and around upstate New York.

KING: The Oneida commune is started by a guy named John Humphrey Noyes. John is from a normal, upper-middle-class family in Vermont. He's a handsome guy. In pictures, he looks a lot like Neil Patrick Harris.


KING: NPH. And John has intense charisma - like, the kind of charisma you write home about. In fact, more than a few young ladies did write home about it. Ellen Wayland-Smith is a great-great-great-grandniece of John's. And she says, here's what one woman said about him.

ELLEN WAYLAND-SMITH: She said, when you were in a room with him, the whole room lit up. And he made you want to do whatever he told you to do.

VANEK SMITH: John belongs to a group called The Perfectionists. And the idea behind being a Perfectionist is that you strive to make yourself perfect, free of sin and desire and fear. You work on yourself.

KING: So they start this commune in Oneida. But they need to find a way to make a living. And, at first, they're thinking, maybe orchards? But the weather upstate is very fickle, and the orchards keep dying. And then someone in the commune tips John off. He says, there's this guy that just joined, Sewell Newhouse.

WONDERLY: A legendary figure much like Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone.

KING: Sewell is a wildly talented artisan. He makes animal traps. And Tony says Sewell was just, like, the man.

WONDERLY: He's the fastest guy. Who's the best trapper? The best shot? Sewell.

KING: A person like Sewell is part of what's going to make Oneida so special. The way I imagine it, the other communes upstate are getting the anxious people and the depressives (laughter). They're getting, like, the broom-maker. I feel like I would be a broom-maker.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) You would not be a broom-maker, Noel.

KING: But John Humphrey Noyes...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

KING: John Humphrey Noyes is getting CEO types. I mean, think about it. Perfectionism literally means you think it is possible to be perfect here on Earth. So he's attracting talented optimists.

VANEK SMITH: Guys like Sewell, who is a really talented trap-maker. He makes animal traps by hand. And the timing is really good because right now fur is in the height of fashion. Everybody wants cuffs and collars made out of mink and ermine and things like that.

KING: And Noyes has these other talented, optimistic, can-do followers who happen to be ace machinists. They figure out a way to mechanize production of Sewell's traps. And within a couple of years, the commune is cranking out 200,000 animal traps a year.

VANEK SMITH: These are people who get mass production. And they're riffing on the Industrial Revolution. It is manufacturing but with a religious underpinning.

KING: John Noyes and his followers start putting their prowess to work in other areas, as well. They have a bunch of side hustles, including flatware. They start making flatware.

VANEK SMITH: This group just seems to have a knack for business. And all of the things that come into the commune - all of the money is shared. Nobody owns anything. They call it Bible communism. And it's not like Marxist communism. It literally just means commune-ism.

KING: In fact, they are capitalists, very successful capitalists. Ellen says that meshes just fine with John's Perfectionist beliefs.

WAYLAND-SMITH: He thought capitalism was going to be a way of uniting humans into one sort of global market and that this can only bring good.

KING: And, for them, it did bring good. By 1862, these people have enough money to build the 93,000-square-foot mansion house. And then 250 or so of them move in together.

VANEK SMITH: It's idyllic. You have men and women in fields, picking berries, in a factory making animal traps. And they only have to work a few hours a day because things are going so well they can afford to hire people in town.

KING: They hang out in the mansion library. And they read, and they put on plays.

VANEK SMITH: The women take off their corsets, and they cut their hair short. And they start wearing pants.

KING: But they are not just sharing money. That's the other unusual part of John's Perfectionist society. They're sharing spouses, which is part of their Perfectionism, too. They think ownership and selfishness make people unhappy. So share. John has made ground rules to keep things from getting out of control. First of all, it's not called free love. It's called complex marriage. Here's Ellen.

WAYLAND-SMITH: Well, the rules were that all men in the community were married to all women. So, in other words, all women and men were accessible to one another sexually in theory. If a man wanted to - they called them interviews.

KING: Interviews?

WAYLAND-SMITH: Interviews - that was their euphemism for having sex.


KING: As a reporter...


KING: ...I'm not really sure what to say. OK. So here's how it worked. A man would approach a woman, not the woman he wanted to interview but a go-between. And he'd say to her, hey. I want to interview Stacey. Can you see if she'd be up for it? And then, Stacey, you would get to say yes or no.

Did it work both ways?

WAYLAND-SMITH: I think it would've been unusual for a woman to proposition a man.

KING: Damn.


KING: All of this, and (laughter)...

WAYLAND-SMITH: I know, right?

VANEK SMITH: The Perfectionists are also against what they call sticky love. That is selfish love, the kind of love where you get attached to someone.

WAYLAND-SMITH: You were never allowed to spend the night with anyone. You had these interviews that were literally sort of hour sessions in a room. Yeah.


WAYLAND-SMITH: You're not allowed to spend the night because that would...

KING: No pillow talk.

WAYLAND-SMITH: No pillow talk. Well, you know...

KING: Just get in. Do your interview. You get out.

WAYLAND-SMITH: ...I'm sure people figured out a way around it. But, technically, you were not, you know, supposed to be cohabitating with this person you're sleeping with because that would - that was conducive to a kind of intimacy that would not work in the community.

KING: And if you fell in love with someone - if you were like, you know what? John Miller is the dude for me. I don't want to sleep with anyone else.

WAYLAND-SMITH: You were severely chastised and punished.

KING: Punishment took the form of mutual criticism. You'd stand up in front of a panel of people. And they would just tell you about yourself.

WAYLAND-SMITH: And the criticisms could be literally anything from, you know, he laughs too loud, his stories are boring - one woman got criticized for being pigeon-toed. She should try to walk with her feet turned out. So it sort of went from the sublime to the ridiculous, you know, to the petty.

VANEK SMITH: So, to me, this sounds terrible. But, apparently, some members of the community really liked it. They even would volunteer to go in front of these panels and have people speak honestly about their flaws. And for 30 years, this community gets by and thrives.

KING: But then something starts to shift. There are things going on at Oneida that are wrong. There are these stories about John Humphrey Noyes sleeping with underage girls. It's very disturbing to people inside the commune, and word starts to get out.

VANEK SMITH: At the same time, the country is becoming more religiously conservative. The government is starting to ask a lot of questions about some of the newer religions that have cropped up across the country. Tony Wonderly says the Oneidans get wind that the government is prosecuting Mormons out West.

WONDERLY: And they always said when the government goes after the Mormons, then we've got to watch our tails. They'll be after us next.

VANEK SMITH: In 1879, John gets a tip that the authorities are coming for him, and he bolts to Canada.

KING: And when he leaves, there are these really big questions. Do we stay here? Do we go somewhere else? Do we keep doing things the way we're doing or do we change?

VANEK SMITH: And so in 1880, there's a big commune meeting over what to do. Two hundred people vote and...

KING: And they vote to fold the Oneida commune. They're no longer going to be spouse swapping. But even though they're not in bed together anymore, they are still in business together. And it's a thriving business, and they all own it.

VANEK SMITH: So they form a joint stock company, Oneida Company Limited, owned by the 200 adult commune members. The company is worth about $14 million in today's dollars, and the stock is divvied up according to how long people have been with the commune and how much capital they put in when they arrived.

KING: So now these people have to change their lifestyles. Some of them get married and move out and form nuclear families. And everybody now owns their own stuff. And for a lot of them, it really freaks them out.

WONDERLY: And so they went through a period of time where they would take careful notice of lending one another a hammer or a pin or a nail.

VANEK SMITH: While they are adjusting to all of this, Noyes - who is still up in Canada - dies of old age.

WONDERLY: And then dissention set in. And a lot of the people running the company at that point became advocates of spiritualism and claimed that they were in contact with Noyes and Noyesian (ph) decisions and...

VANEK SMITH: Meaning they were talking to his ghost?


VANEK SMITH: These old guys are running a multimillion-dollar company, and they are getting management tips from a ghost. It's a problem. And meanwhile, all around them, the times are changing again. We've entered the gilded age, which is a time of unprecedented business competition and marketing.

And at this moment, Oneida probably should have failed. And it would have failed except that John Humphrey Noyes had a son who was a very extraordinary person.

WONDERLY: Most of us are about as smart as we have to be to get through life. And very occasionally, we meet someone who is really intelligent. And when that happens, it's unmistakable. The person is bigger than life. And Pierrepont was that way.

KING: Pierrepont Noyes didn't care about free love or perfectionism. His religion was business. He started out as a low-level flatware salesman in New York, but he didn't stay there for long. The Oneidans knew that times had changed. They were losing money.

Around the year 1900, Pierrepont comes home from New York back up to Oneida, and he and a bunch of people from the younger generation, they take over the company. Now, Oneida is still making a bunch of different things.

VANEK SMITH: And Pierrepont decides it's time to focus. And the thing he wants to focus on is silver-plated flatware. He thinks it's the future. At this time, the U.S. middle class is really growing. And there are all these young people who are coming into money. And they have new homes, and they need flatware.

And at this time, only really rich people can afford silver, sterling silver. And everybody else uses steel utensils. And middle class people all want those beautiful silver utensils, but they can't really afford them. So Pierrepont figures out a way to make utensils that look like sterling silver and even feel like sterling silver but cost way less.

KING: Pierrepont takes regular metal flatware. And instead of dipping it in a silver bath for a second or two, he takes it and he dunks it in for a couple seconds more. It doesn't really cost that much extra, but when you pull it out, it looks and feels much more like the real thing. And then his idea was to etch on these elaborate curlicue patterns and give them insane flowery names like Avalon and Coronation.

And getting back to his salesman roots, he started knocking the competition. There were these old established silverware firms that dominated the market, but Pierrepont was like a magician. He'd take his spoon and the other guys' spoon.

WONDERLY: He would flash it in the customer's face. He would take a competition item and he would say, you see this? You see this? It's nothing but a bunch of sausage from toolmakers.

KING: It was pretty much the same spoon, maybe a little heavier, triple plated in silver, but people loved it. And they bought it.

VANEK SMITH: At the same time, Pierrepont tripled down on advertising. He hired famous artists. And in the days when most ads were just big blocks of text, Oneida comes out with all these ads featuring the first pinup girls.

WONDERLY: It looked like they were intelligent and having fun and wanted nothing more than to have fun with one another and to have Oneida silverware.

VANEK SMITH: That's like what we all want, right?

KING: It's what we all want.

VANEK SMITH: We all want to have fun and use utensils.

KING: I saw a bunch of these ads, by the way, and it's like some hip-looking young woman out on the town and then right below where there's just like a spoon hanging out.

VANEK SMITH: Just hanging out.

KING: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: A spoon. By the mid-'20s, this upstart Oneida company was doing so well that it was buying up other silverware companies.

KING: Yes. Oneida is a runaway American capitalist success. But there were some things from the old commune that Pierrepont kept alive. He had a motto - nobody rich, nobody poor. So when it came to their workers, Oneida did things their way. Pierrepont called it industrial socialism.

VANEK SMITH: Oneida built its workers a town with parks and ballfields, electricity, water, sewage. It paid half the salary of the schoolteachers there. And executive pay was kept very low. And when the company was going through hard times, executives took pay cuts before the workers did.

KING: Nola DeSimone - the lady who I met in the mansion house library - she remembers that Pierrepont's workers, the guys on the line, loved him so much that one year, they pooled their money and they bought him a blue Cadillac.

DESIMONE: And it had that Cadillac fin up in the back. Remember those first ones? And I - it was a beautiful car.

KING: I mean, try to imagine in 2017, the workers of a company buying a car for the CEO. It's unthinkable. Tony Wonderly, the historian, says even back then, this was extraordinary.

WONDERLY: I think giants once walked the earth here.

KING: Are you getting choked up?


KING: Why?

WONDERLY: I think these folks are our inspirations for us. I think they help to remind us what we should be doing as Americans - what is most American about business and our better nature and our Americanness.

KING: By the end of World War II, Oneida has become a giant. It is an iconic American company. And Pierrepont throws a big 100-year anniversary party with clowns, balloons and comedians. They even crown a silver queen.

DESIMONE: We had Tommy Dorsey's orchestra. And that was pretty special. Have you heard of him?

VANEK SMITH: But the world was changing again. And this is a very familiar story in business. Oneida has to fight to compete with cheaper imports that are coming in. Also, taste start to change. Stainless steel becomes really popular. Silver plate starts going out of fashion. And the Oneida company starts having a lot of infighting.

KING: Jeff Noyes is Pierrepont Noyes' grandson. He worked for Oneida for many years. And he says things really changed in the late '60s when the company went public, when it was listed on the stock exchange because when that happened, it wasn't a family company anymore.

VANEK SMITH: All these outsiders came in. Executive salaries rose. The industrial socialism kind of petered out. And Jeff Noyes says the Oneida name just wasn't what it had been.

JEFF NOYES: They depreciated the value of the name Oneida by putting it in Walmart and stuff. My father really disliked Wal-Mart. He didn't like - what the hell's the guy's name? - Walton, yeah, Walton. He knew this guy Walton.

KING: Your dad knew him?

NOYES: Yeah, because, obviously, they wanted Oneida in Walmart.

KING: And your dad didn't want it in Walmart?


KING: Why not?

NOYES: Well, because it depreciated the name.

KING: After the break, what is left of Oneida.

About a decade ago, Oneida filed for bankruptcy. Shareholders, including some Oneida descendants, lost a lot of money.

VANEK SMITH: You can still buy Oneida utensils. It's still a brand that exists in the world. The Oneida company merged with a different company to become the Oneida Group. It's still a really popular brand in retail and food services. If you flip over a fork in a restaurant, you might see Oneida. And, of course, they sell it at Walmart.

KING: And the Oneida family is still kicking around up there. And they're really proud of this company. They see what Oneida did as an experiment in responsible capitalism. They made money. But they also took care of each other. And for a while, anyway, it worked.


KING: Our editor is kind of into utopian communities right now. If you have any stories about economic utopias, please send them to us. We're planetmoney@npr.org. If you want to learn more about Oneida, I can recommend two great books - Ellen Wayland-Smith's "Oneida: From Free Love Utopia To The Well-Set Table" and Tony Wonderly's "Oneida Utopia," which is going to come out this winter.

Today's episode was produced by Sally Helm. Brian Urstadt is our editor. Alex Goldmark produces the show. Special thanks to Paul Gebhardt, Kate Wayland-Smith, Pat Hoffman, Molly Jessup and Kevin Coffee.

VANEK SMITH: And if you're looking for a new podcast to listen to, check out Up First. It is the morning news podcast from NPR. It is 10 minutes long. And it tells you everything you need to know to start your day. You can find it on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

KING: And I'm Noel King. Thanks for listening.


KING: But this group is not just sharing all the money, the....

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) They're sharing other things, too.

KING: Spouses, too.

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