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Oneida Community Mansion House, Oneida, New York, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"

A work made of chromogenic print.

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  • A work made of chromogenic print.


August 1996


Joel Sternfeld
American, born 1944

About this artwork


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Photography and Media


Joel Sternfeld


Oneida Community Mansion House, Oneida, New York, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"


United States (Artist's nationality)


Made 1996


Chromogenic print


Unmarked recto or verso The members of John Humphrey Noyes’ highly religious and communistic Oneida Society believed that people could become perfect simply by accepting Christ into their souls. This was reasonable enough, but everything that followed that simple belief was radical to the point of heresy. God was both male and female, and thus the community was governed by men and women alike. In the spirit of the holy community of Christians, every member of the community should equally love everyone else, including sexually. Monogamous marriage was a tyranny, “egotism for two,” and was replaced by the enlarged family that came to be known as “complex marriage.” Eventually a hierarchy developed in which the most spiritual members had the most access to sexual contact (Noyes presumably at the top of the ladder). Unwanted pregnancies were avoided by “male continence,” whereby “the skillful boatman may choose whether he will remain in the still water…or run his boat over the falls.” To hold together the web of emotionality that was associated with complex marriage, members engaged in “mutual criticism,” in which the person being discussed remained silent while every aspect of his or her being was open to analysis. Quite remarkably, it worked. The community, which held all property in common, thrived at Oneida from 1848 until 1881. In 1867, a eugenics experiment called stirpiculture was introduced—a committee decided who would procreate with whom. Polly Held, seen here in the garden of Oneida in 1996, is the great-granddaughter of a stirpiculture union between John Humphrey Noyes and a female member of the community. In August of 1879, reacting to internal pressures from dissatisfied lower spiritual-status members, as well as members anxious to have “special love” and committee-free procreation, the society discontinued “complex marriage” and transferred the community property to a joint-stock company in which everyone held shares. Former members could continue to live in the mansion (their descendents still do) and work in various Oneida industries. Their highly successful animal trap company was transformed into Oneida Limited, the well-known maker of silverware. In a sense, the community, while dissolving, wrote its own eulogy: “The truth is, as the world will one day see and acknowledge, that [we] have not been pleasure-seeking spiritualists, but social architects, with high religious and moral aims, whose experiments and discourses [we] have sincerely believed would prove of value to mankind.” From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005


Image: 26.5 × 33.2 cm (10 7/16 × 13 1/8 in.); Paper: 27.9 × 35.5 cm (11 × 14 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall

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