Original Joiners ~ Harriet Mathews

Oneida Community Work Bee

On February 4, 1848, John Humphrey Noyes decided to move his small group of followers from Putney, Vermont to Oneida, New York.  The move was not exactly voluntary.  The previous November an arrest warrant had been issued for Noyes charging him with adultery with two women ~ Fanny Leonard and Achsah Campbell.  They were members of the Putney Association, Noyes’ first attempt to create a Bible Communist community.

Fearing mob violence from the citizens of Putney outraged to discover a group of people practicing” free love” within their village, Noyes fled to New York seeking refuge and a new start among his supporters in Oneida.  By the following year, 1849, there would be 87 members of the newly established Community along the Oneida Creek in what is now Madison County.  It would be called the Oneida Community.

These members and individuals and families that joined the Oneida Community in the first years of its existence are considered the “Original Joiners.”  They were persuaded to give up their former lives and live in the “wilderness,” at the edge of what was considered civilization in the 1840s and 50s, in what is now Central New York.  Noyes attracted many of his followers through the publications of his writings and accounts of the progress of the religious communities he was creating.  Harriet Matthews was one of the original joiners.  She was born on February 21, 1820 in North Brookfield, Massachusetts.  At 15, she joined the Congregational Church, but it was thirteen years later that she would make a spiritual decision that would determine the course of her life.

Here are excerpts from a diary account of Harriet Matthew’s spiritual journey into the wilderness.

Harriet Matthews

“I went to New York City in March 1848.  Mr. Cragin met with me at the residence of Mr. Horace Greeley, the Editor of “The Tribune,” and after becoming acquainted somewhat with Mr. Noyes and learning something of the nature of the Association, I concluded to join.”

She decided to join the Oneida Association on March 23, 1849, and moved to Oneida five days later.

Harriet Matthews, like many women in the Oneida Community, kept a diary to record her thoughts and experiences as she struggled with her faith.  Her account captures feelings of being tested and at the same time liberated while attempting to live according to the principles of Bible Communism.

“August 12, 1855.  I feel as if I were indeed born again.  It seems as if during the past summer I had been going through an emptying process, till I was entirely emptied of everything and had a deep consciousness of my own weakness, nothingness and entire inability to do anything of myself.  And this I realized was favorable to Christ’s taking possession of me.   As Paul says, ‘when I am weak then am I strong.’”

Harriet Matthews joined as an individual, leaving her family behind.  However, the relative security of living among an extended family of hundreds was attractive to many Community members and their families facing the uncertainty of life in the world outside the Oneida Community.

“October 2, 1855.  I received a letter from my father.  He has at last and much against his will taken refuge in the poorhouse.  He also stated that sister Hannah’s husband is in the hospital hopelessly insane leaving her with three little children to support; and that Sarah’s husband, who was rich, has failed and she has buried her two youngest children this summer.  My youngest brother James is in very feeble health, not able to take care of himself.  The whole family is in great tribulation.  There is a great pressure on every side from those in distress wishing to join us, to get out of trouble at the present time.”

It was not an easy task for Harriet Matthews and the other members to live under constant scrutiny by the Community, expressed by individuals in regular criticism sessions, where one was expected to sit quietly as your faults were told to you.  One member described it as having your skin peeled before your eyes.  Harriet recorded the criticisms of her character by the Community in her diary.

“December 31, 1855.  Today, I received a sincere criticism, and in a way I felt that it came from God, in regard to my relations to my brothers.  I was criticized for lack of meekness and respect, for assuming superiority and making them feel small. I believe it has been a quality of my spirit that I have been nearly unconscious of it.  I think I inherited it from my mother.  I think it is a hateful spirit & contrary to the will of God.”

Early on in the history of the Community, women broke with social constraints and customs – cutting their hair short and wearing pantaloons or bloomer dresses, as they came to be called.  It was part of their struggle against vanity and part of their effort to liberate themselves from the cumbersome dresses and corsets that kept women from participating fully in work usually reserved for men.

“April 29, 1856.  I commenced working in the garden as a regular hand.  Yesterday I had my hair cut short.  Both of these things are answers to prayers offered long ago.  I have worked all day in the garden with the men and was considerably tempted to be tired, stiff and lame, yet by opening my heart to faith I am not so, but feel bright and good tonight.”

Picnic at the Cascades

What made her struggle worthwhile was her trust in Noyes,  a strong belief in Christ and in the family of the Oneida Community.

“May 22, 1856.  I have had a good day, worked out nearly all day.  We ate supper under the tree and then marched round and round the yard and flower garden.  I thank God for trials and temptations, for experience, which humbles me, turns me inward, makes me poor in spirit and makes me feel my need of Christ, in Him alone is salvation.  How vain is any arm of flesh to lean upon.  O that I may love Him and trust Him as I ought.”

Harriet worked as a dressmaker and a housekeeper in the Community.  She had one Community child with Charles Olds, whom she married at the breakup of the Community in 1880.  Her daughter, Shirley, was born on March 23, 1859, and died the same day.

Harriet Matthews died at the age of 85 on December 9, 1905, and was remembered as a woman of untiring faith, hearty spirit, and as a “charming writer of diaries.”  She has no descendants in the Community.


Fruits of Fall

Last night I made poached pears with chocolate sauce and  though the dessert was delicious I have to agree with Harriet Skinner that “it is a poor pear that can be improved by any cooking.”

It is not surprising that in Oneida Community Cooking Harriet lists no recipes for pears, but pays great attention to apples as in:  Apple Pudding. ~  Pare and quarter apples enough for two layers on the bottom of your pudding dish – which we will suppose to be a yellow nappy (a round, shallow cooking or serving dish with a flat bottom and sloping sides) – the bottom about the size of a breakfast plate.  The apples should be sour and juicy, and the quarters should be nicely packed in, one by one.  Add a table-spoonful of water, half a cup of sugar and a little piece of butter; a little salt; spice to your taste.  Make a paste exactly like what you make for strawberry shortcake, spread it on the apples and bake.  When done, cut around the crust and turn the pudding over, apple upward, on to a plate.  Eat with wine sauce, or with sugar and cream.  We prefer the latter.  When baked the apples should be perfectly soft, but unbroken and adhering to the crust.  Do not spread the crust too thick; half an inch is thick enough.  The crust is sometimes shortened with chopped suet instead of butter.

Food & Cooking

Be sure to check out the new categories under Oneida Cuisine: OC Menus, OC Recipes  and Oneida Community Cooking (excepts from the 1873 book by Harriet Skinner).

Culinary Insights

If the way to win someone’s heart is through their stomach, perhaps the Oneida Community cuisine, as much as their religious philosophy, was responsible for the loyalty of so many ardent members.   It was a simple and mostly vegetarian cuisine based on fresh ingredients  grown in the fields and orchards of the Community.   I’ve been hungry to learn about their crops, recipes, menus and methods of preserving and preparing their food.

At Syracuse University Library, where the Oneida papers are archived,  I discovered a menu planner from November 1877, a time when four meals a day were served.   It provided an interesting snapshot of a month where potatoes were served in some form with nearly every meal.   But I wanted more detail!  A  couple of weeks ago Frank and I met with the Executive Director of the Mansion House, Patricia  Hoffman who gave me a photocopy of a cookbook compiled and edited by Harriet Skinner, a sister of John Humphrey Noyes and an early convert and member of the O. C.  What a goldmine of all things culinary in the O.C. !   Follow along on Harriet’s Food Blog for more on O. C. cooking and cuisine.

New Discoveries

We have lived in the Mansion House for three weeks.  For nine of these days, we have sought refuge from the July heat wave (high 90s and heavy air) in the Syracuse Library Special Collections Room.  This is where the Oneida Community papers are kept.


Cool Researching

It is a treasure of diaries, letters, Community records, poems, novels, plays, sketches, and articles and essays.  The Special Collections room is also refrigerated, which feels very refreshing in the midst of the heat wave outside.

We have examined letters, diaries and journals from 16 of the 77 boxes of materials from the Oneida Community.  It is exhausting work, trying to decipher handwriting that was written in pencil and is now faded or ink soaked pages that are on the brink of disintegration.  But every day of work produces rewards that makes it all worthwhile.  One such discovery was Harriet Worden’s 1868-69 Journal.

I first heard of Harriet Worden in the 1980s, when I read her son’s account of growing up in the Oneida Community ~ My Father’s House, An Oneida Boyhood by Pierrepont B. Noyes.

PB Noyes as he was called as an adult, was born in 1870; his father was John Humphrey Noyes, and Pip (as he was called as a child) was one of the children born during the eugenics program, what the Community called “Stirpiculture.”  In his twenties, PB Noyes took control of the joint stock company that emerged from the dissolution of the Oneida Community in 1880, and built it into the world’s biggest manufacturer of flatware, Oneida Ltd.  I recall Pip’s mother admonishing him not to cry or cling to her when it was time for him to return to the Children’s House, where he was raised together with the other children by “a mother” and “father” chosen by the Community.

Reading Tirzah Miller’s diary, published as Desire & Duty at Oneida ~ Tirzah Miller’s Intimate Memoir edited by Robert S. Fogarty, Harriet makes several appearances, but as a rival to Tirzah for the love of Edward Inslee and Henry Hunter.  Both Tirzah and Harriet were writers and took turns editing the Community newspaper, The Circular.  Harriet Worden wrote a memoir of her own, but much less personal than Tirzah’s ~ Old Mansion House Memories, which were public memories of the first Mansion House that was replaced in 1862 by the present building, and published in The Circular in 1870-71.

Harriet Worden

The journal we found in Harriet’s folder was written contemporaneously between November 1868 and May 1869.  It is very exciting to find this journal.  It records daily events in the life of the Oneida Community.

For example:

  • the changes in living and working arrangements between and within the three “families” at Oneida, Wallingford Ct., and Willow Place (the location a few miles from the Mansion House where the traps were manufactured)
  • the visitors to the Community
  • the births and deaths within the Community
  • the weather (a critical factor in this part of the world)
  • the sales and other business trips by members of the Community
  • the orders for traps and silk thread
  • the appeals by people in the outside world to join the Community
  • the accounts of members who decided to leave the Community
  • the criticisms of individuals by criticism committees
  • the ideas expressed by the leader of the Community – John Humphrey Noyes  – and the subsequent discussion by the Community
  • the plans for new buildings and changes in the organization of work
  • the evening meetings and the entertainment that was almost a nightly occurrence

Anything that was unusual or extraordinary, Harriet wrote about it.  It is a wonderful account of the daily life of the Community when it was at it’s zenith.  It was a time of confidence, of business success, of plans to produce scientifically superior children, of showing the way to perfection to the outside world by the manner in which they worked, lived and loved.

Today, we begin posting excerpts from Harriet’s Journal, which will provide a sense of the rhythm of life at a critical time in the history of the Oneida Community.

Time Traveling

The Tontine and Connecting Lounge

We have lived in the Tontine section of the 93,000 square foot Oneida Community Mansion House now for two weeks.  It seems like much longer.  Perhaps the false sense of time is caused by all that we have had to do to make our apartment our home, or the heat wave that we endured all of last week.  But I am certain that time feels very relative because we are living and working within three time periods.

Our apartment was built during the Civil War and completed in 1864.  It was named after a Boston hotel, The Tontine.  The name Tontine comes from an Italian banker named, Lorenzo de Tonti.  He devised a scheme for raising capital with the amount of an investor’s dividends  determined by the number of surviving investors.  A great incentive to hope for the demise of one’s fellow investors, or even help them along into the next world.  Agatha Christie territory.

The Oneida Community built the Tontine to meet their work and dining needs.  The basement of the Tontine was used as the kitchen, laundry room and the area where the dying of silk would take place.  They made silk thread for sale. There is still a laundry room in the basement.

The first floor was the communal dinning room, serving meals for up to 300 members of the Community.  After the break-up in 1881, the dinning room was used to serve meals to all who lived in the Mansion House ~ former Community members and their families, Oneida Limited employees, and people who rented or lodged in the Mansion House.  Today, there is a very nice Spanish restaurant and lounge, Zabroso (www.oneidacommunity.org/dining.html) that serves tapas, paella and other Spanish and Latin American cuisine, and also has a Happy Hour.  What would  the Community Members have thought of Happy Hour in their dining room?

Tontine 2nd Floor 1864-1874

Our apartment, #255, takes almost half of the second floor of the Tontine.  This floor was a work area from 1864-1874.  Drying clothes and silk was done here.  Starting in 1868, the Community newspaper, The Circular, was printed on this floor.  There was also a small classroom.  In 1874, when the Community’s population was reaching close to 300, more bedrooms were needed.  Also, some of the work performed in the Tontine was moved to buildings outside the Mansion House.  So the second floor of the Tontine became sleeping rooms.

Tontine 2nd Floor 1874-1880

Since all meals were taken downstairs, there was no need for a kitchen in these rooms.  Where we now live, there were six sleeping rooms and one larger sitting room (R 271) that looked out on to the Quadrangle or courtyard that is now surrounded by all the buildings of the Mansion House.

After the transformation of the Oneida Community into the Oneida Community Limited (later Oneida Ltd.), changes were made to the Mansion House, including to the Tontine to accommodate the new living arrangements of individual families, rather than one large communal family.  Our apartment was created out of the 1874 layout of six bedrooms and one sitting room into what it is today – a two bedroom apartment or a 4 1/2 (as we learned to say in Montreal).

Tontine 2nd Floor 1920 to 2010

What was once three bedrooms is now a kitchen/dining room.  The back bedroom (R277) is now our work area (returning to its roots).  The bathroom was once a bedroom.  Our bedroom and living room are in the same place, in the front facing the Quadrangle, but the bedroom was expanded three feet at the expense of the sitting room.

So we are living in a building that was built and occupied in the 19th Century.  But our apartment is the result of transforming some, but not all, of the 19th Century bedrooms during the early 20th Century.  And we enjoy the conveniences of the 21st Century – Internet and Cable TV, etc.  – that allows us to work and live here in the Tontine.

The Tontine

Our bedroom and living rooms are on the second floor containing  the four windows on the left.


This is our view of the Quadrangle and the Tulip tree that dominates it.