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Oneida Highlights How Unconventional Lifestyles Can Lead To Success


Flip over your fork in a restaurant or your home, and you might see the name Oneida. For a long time, Oneida was one of the world's biggest flatware companies. Noel King from our Planet Money podcast brings us the story of Oneida, a company that reminds us capitalist success can come from unconventional lifestyles.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: To get the Oneida company, you have to start with the Oneida commune that came before it. In the 1840s, the Second Great Awakening was underway. It was a time of religious zeal that saw the birth of the Mormon Church and the Seventh-day Adventists and the perfectionists who thought people should strive to be perfect here on Earth.

John Humphrey Noyes, the commune's founder, was a perfectionist. He had red hair and freckles and intense charisma. His great-great-great-grandniece Ellen Wayland-Smith wrote a book called "Oneida."

ELLEN WAYLAND-SMITH: 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.

KING: In the 1840s, Noyes and his followers took up in rural Oneida, N.Y. Lots of communes were cropping up. Tony Wonderly, a historian of the Oneida Community, says most were pretty basic.

TONY WONDERLY: They would make shoes, or they would make chairs. They would do things that people did in the Middle Ages.

KING: The Oneidans were different. Noyes was attracting talented optimists, CEO types. They started out making animal traps by hand but very quickly figured out how to mass produce them. Traps made the Oneidans rich. Then they expanded into other industries like flatware. They shared all money communally, and they shared something else. They practiced free love with a system to regulate their encounters. Here's Ellen.

WAYLAND-SMITH: They called them interviews.

KING: Interviews.

WAYLAND-SMITH: Interviews. That was their euphemism.

KING: Another Oneida euphemism - complex marriage.

WAYLAND-SMITH: 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.

KING: It worked for them. The commune prospered for 30 years. But the country grew more religiously conservative. The government started prosecuting Mormons out West. Here's Tony Wonderly again.

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.

KING: So in 1880, members voted to end the free-love commune and focus on the thriving businesses. Oneida would be owned collectively by the 200 adult members. And when the charismatic John Humphrey Noyes died, his son Pierrepont took over around 1900.

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

KING: Pierrepont's religion was the business. He realized the U.S. middle class was growing, and they couldn't afford sterling silver. Oneida's silver-plated flatware was an affordable alternative. Using clever ads featuring cool, young women and beautiful housewives, he made Oneida flatware a must-have.

But the spirit of the commune still guided the company's values. Oneida built a town for its workers. It helped them buy houses. It paid teachers' salaries. It kept executive pay low. It became a capitalist success and still took care of its workers. And it thrived for decades.

And then a familiar tale in U.S. manufacturing - Oneida struggled to compete with foreign imports. A couple years ago, Oneida filed for bankruptcy. What was left of it merged with a different company to form The Oneida Group. They still make flatware with the name Oneida stamped on the back. Noel King, NPR News.


Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.