Celebrations in the Mansion House

Wedding in the Big Hall

Each summer weddings are celebrated in the Oneida Community Mansion House – in the Big Hall or in the Quadrangle.   For those of us who make the Mansion House our home, it is a major event in our day, and often of our late night as well, as reception bands rock the lounge and all of our apartments.

While weddings and receptions don’t make up much of the income that supports the educational mission of the Oneida Community Mansion House, formal weddings, receptions and informal picture taking sessions on the extensive lawns, following a wedding in a nearby church, sustains an enduring local connection with the Mansion House.

Bridal Party at the Mansion House

There is the obvious irony of the modern wedding ceremonies taking place in the home of a religious community that abolished individual marriage in favor of “complex marriage” where all members of the OC were married to each other.

The association with romantic monogamous marriage has long been associated with the products of Oneida Limited, the modern day descendant of the Oneida Community.  The silverware produced by Oneida Ltd. has for a nearly one hundred years been a treasured bridal gift, symbolizing quality and endurance, reflecting the vows of newly weds ~ to honor and cherish each other all their lives.

When I see a bride and groom beginning their lives together in a ceremony performed in the Mansion House, I can’t help but imagine so many other events that the OC celebrated during the years it was active as a Bible Communist Community from 1848-1880.  Many members kept diaries or wrote extensively about these events.  Here are a few examples:

Tirzah Miller 1873

On April 28, 1873, Tirzah Miller wrote in her diary about her future husband and her mother:  “Mr. Herrick, who has been here five years on probation, joined the Community by marrying Mother as its representative.”  While Tirzah does not describe the ceremony, she did say she had practiced the “Wedding March” in preparation for the celebration of James Herrick being accepted as a member of the Community.

Charlotte Leonard

Charlotte Leonard wrote a letter to her mother describing a ceremony that took place in the Big Hall on May 11, 1873, celebrating the pairing of Tirzah Miller and Edward Inslee as a couple chosen by John Humphrey Noyes to conceive a Community child as part of the stirpiculture experiment.  From Charlotte’s description we can almost see the ceremony as a scene in a film.

The Big Hall in the Oneida Community Mansion House is filled to capacity.  Nearly three hundred men, women and children, members of the Community, occupy chairs arranged in rows on the floor and in all the seats in the balcony above.  From the balcony, we see a couple in their late twenties, Tirzah Miller and Edward Inslee, walk from the back of an elevated stage to its edge.  They stop and look out at the audience for a moment and then kneel on the stage floor with their heads bowed and their hands clasped.  The audience rises and begins to sing a Community song, “Blessing on Begetting”, to the tune of the old Christian hymn, “Old Hundredth”.

“Great Giver of the righteous seed, before Thy throne Thy children plead that they are nevermore their own but live to worship Thee alone.”

As the singing continues, we see among the audience, framing the joyous singing faces, the bearded face of John Humphrey Noyes, the sixty-two year old Community leader.  The singing continues as we see the kneeling couple.

“Our Father, on these two who kneel our blessing with Thy blessing seal; and grant in coming joyous days; a noble child may lisp Thy praise.”

After the singing has finished, a dozen couples walk on to the stage and hug the young man and woman, while the audience cheers.  With the couples behind him on stage, John Humphrey Noyes speaks to the audience.

“We seem to have got through the war.  We are getting out of debt; prosperity is rolling in upon us.  We are studying Darwin and the Bible.  The Community is ready, as with one heart, for a faithful trial of rational breeding.  Without immodesty, we ask all who love God and mankind to pray that we may succeed, for our success will surely be the dawn of a better day to the world.”

As Noyes sits down in the audience, Tirzah Miller and Edward Inslee begin to play a duet on piano and horn.

Oneida Community Children

On November 21, 1870, Charlotte Leonard described in her diary a “baby shower” ceremony in the Big Hall.

“First, all the mothers were seated on the stage with their babies, also all the expectant mothers.  Then, the curtain rose and John Lord proceeded to weigh each baby, beginning with the oldest.  Humphrey’s weight was twenty pounds, four ounces.  Richard’s weight was twenty-one pounds, fifteen ounces, Rutherford’s nineteen pounds two ounces, etc.  This was quite an interesting performance, and the babies appeared to enjoy it as well as the audience.  Humphrey was constantly creeping to the edge of the stage and throwing his rattlebox down to the band, which sat first under the edge of the stage.  After the weighing, Richard and Humphrey were undressed and placed on the stage.  The little fellows hardly knew what to make of it, and Humphrey was so frightened we had to take him off the stage. “

Harriet Worden

Harriet Worden recorded a funeral in her journal in January 15, 1869.  It was unusual for the Community to hold a funeral.

“On account of so many hired men who have all summer worked under Mr. Conant, Mr. Woolworth & others informed them of his death.  And at ½ past 10, it was decided to have a regular funeral.  Mr. Bolles preached the sermon.  His extracts from the Berean were very appropriate and the whole subject inspiring.  At the close, he remarked that Mr. Conant was a good brother, and in many respects a great man.  He remarked upon the great resemblance he bears to Mr. Finney, the great Revivalist preacher.  The Resurrection Hymn was sung, and the ceremonies were closed.  Several of the hired men were observed to weep during his discourse.”

Corinna Ackley Noyes

In her book, The Days of My Youth, Corrina Ackley Noyes described a wedding that took place on December 17, 1879, after Complex Marriage had been abandoned and before the Community itself voted itself into a Joint Stock Corporation.

The marriage by contract came first and a sad spectacle it was to a child whose only ideas of marriage were the gorgeous affairs encountered in fairy tales.  The scene was set upon a bare stage, its only furnishings a flat-topped desk and four straight-backed wooden chairs.  When the excited audience was quiet, in from the wings came the contracting parties, two middle-aged men, Mr. Erastus Hamilton and Mr. Otis Kellogg, dressed in dark business suits, and the two women they were to marry, Miss Elizabeth Hutchins and Miss Olive Nash.  The women were wearing dark, short dresses.  Their hair was short and straight and they had apparently made no effort to beautify for the occasion.  That would have been deemed vain and insincere.

The two couples to be married seated themselves in chairs on each side of the desk, then Mr. Towner, a former judge, came in from the anteroom and, standing at the end of the desk facing the assembly, read the contract aloud.  The bridal couples then signed the contract and the deed was done.  There was no kissing of the brides, and if they shook hands with Mr. Towner, I don’t remember it.  Their own desire seemed to be to get out of the public eye as quickly as possible.

Modern Ceremony in the Big Hall

This was the beginning of wedding ceremonies that would continue to be performed in the Oneida Community Mansion House for more than 100 years to our own time.  While there was the wide variety of ceremonies performed in the Mansion House, except for the rare funeral, there were no religious ceremonies held in this religious community.  They worshiped Jesus daily in their thoughts and actions, and did not require formal public proof of their belief and love for God.

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2 Comments

  1. Mir B. said,

    May 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Y’all, where are you? What happened to this project?

  2. Beth Blatt said,

    April 3, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Hi there, hope you get this note, Mr. Wonderley. I was thrilled to happen on this blog as I’m writing a musical based on the Oneida Community. I’d love to connect with you about the music they created. Would you please drop me a note at bethblatt@yahoo.com and we can take it from there? Thanks so much!


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