Utopian communities in 19th-century America were considered by many to herald a new age in human civilization. Often led by charismatic leaders with high religious or secular moral ideals, these settlements experimented wildly with different models of government, marriage, labor and wealth. Hundreds of such societies littered the U.S. landscape during the 1800s, most disappearing without a trace. Here are five that made a lasting impression on life in the United States, for better or for worse.
The philosophical movement known as Transcendentalist was in full swing when Unitarian minister George Ripley founded Brook Farm in the rural Boston suburb of West Roxbury in 1841. The community wasn’t particularly unique for its time—after all, more than 80 utopian communities were launched in the 1840s alone—but it was notable as the first purely secular one. Members farmed the land together and held the fruits of their labor in common. The idea was that this would give settlers more time to pursue their own literary and scientific interests, which would then benefit the rest of humankind. Money troubles and internal squabbling eventually eroded the community, which disbanded after only a few years in existence. Founding member Nathaniel Hawthorne ended up having a pretty miserable time there, which he would later document in his fictionalized account of Brook Farm, “Blithedale Romance.”
Fruitlands was founded in Harvard, Massachusetts, as a self-sufficient farming community by Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, two men with no practical experience in either farming or self-sufficiency. In contrast to the more freewheeling ethos of Brook Farm, Lane advocated a far more rigorous lifestyle. Settlers were forbidden to eat meat, consume stimulants, use any form of animal labor, create artificial light, enjoy hot baths or drink anything but water. Lane’s ideas later evolved to include celibacy within marriage, which caused no small amount of friction between him and his most loyal disciple, Bronson Alcott, who had relocated his wife and four daughters to Fruitlands in a characteristic fit of enthusiasm. Bronson’s family included a young Louisa May Alcott, future author of “Little Women.” Louisa, her sisters and their mother appear to have been saddled with the lion’s share of labor at Fruitlands, despite lip service from Lane about the alleged equality of the sexes. When winter set in and life at Fruitlands became increasingly harsh, most of its original members fled for more congenial settings. Louisa later wrote a scathing, barely fictionalized report of life at Fruitlands called “Transcendental Wild Oats.” The community lasted less than seven months in total.
The settlement of New Harmony in Indiana was established to allow its members to pursue the study of the sciences and natural philosophy without the encumbrances of modern, capitalist life. Its founder, social reformer Robert Owen, successfully lured away from Philadelphia an entire community of scientists who at the time were considered the brightest and most promising in the nation, including several founding members of the National Academy of Science. Many of these original settlers traveled by boat together to their new home in a journey that was referred to as the “Boatload of Knowledge.” The community thrived for four years before collapsing amid internal disputes over money. But it did succeed in establishing a western center of scientific discovery at a time when these activities were largely confined to the northeastern states.
The Oneida colonists in upstate New York considered themselves all to be married to each other in a practice they called “complex marriage.” Monogamy was thoroughly rejected, and all decisions about childbearing and procreation were handled by committee. Not to say there weren’t slip-ups: A number of children were born without the sanction of the community, though they appear to have been provided for just as if they’d been planned in accordance with the rules. Mothers were only given the care of their offspring for the first few years of life, while the community at large assumed responsibility for older children.
Technically founded in the 18th century, the Shakers nevertheless enjoyed a heyday in the 19th, spawning numerous settlements across the United States, attracting converts and adopting infants and children who were left in their care. The Shakers are known today mostly for their starkly simple furniture design, the successful manufacture and sale of which was a primary reason for their enduring success. Shakers practiced celibacy and communal ownership of goods, along with a strict separation of the sexes in both work and life. Membership dwindled in the early 20th century, eventually leading to the consolidation of more than a dozen communities into just a few. Most Shaker settlements have now been converted into museums, although one small cluster still persists in their unique way of life in a small community in rural Maine.