Oneida highlights the success of unconventional lifestyles.

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Oneida highlights the success of unconventional lifestyles.

Oneida is an iconic American brand known for its elegant and affordable tableware. But Oneida has its roots in an unusual Christian community that combines free love with capitalism.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Flip the fork in your restaurant or home and you might see the name Oneida. Oneida has long been one of the world’s largest tableware companies. Noel King from Planet Money podcast brings us the story of Oneida, a company that reminds us that the success of our capitalists can come from unconventional lifestyles.

NOEL KING, wired: to get Oneida, you have to start with the Oneida commune. In the 1840s, the second great awakening was under way. It’s a time of religious fanaticism, seeing mormons and the advent of seventh-day adventists, and the idea that people should strive to be perfect perfectionists on the planet.

John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the commune, is a perfectionist. He has red hair, freckles and strong charm. His great great-grandfather, Ellen welland 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, noyce and his followers appeared in a large number of communes in the town of Oneida, New York. Most are very basic, says Tony Wonderly, a historian at the Oneida community.

TONY WONDERLY: they can make shoes, or they can make chairs. They do what people do in the middle ages.

KING: Oneidans are different. Noyes is attracting talented optimists, CEO types. They started making animal traps with their hands, but soon came up with how to produce them on a large scale. The trap has enriched the ornithans. Then they spread to other industries, such as tableware. They Shared all the money, and they Shared something else. They practice free love through a system to regulate their encounters. This is Ellen.

Wayland-smith: they call them interviews.

KING: interview.

Wayland-smith: interview. That’s their euphemism.

KING: another Oneida euphemism – complicated marriage.

Wayland-smith: the rule is that all community men marry all women. In other words, all men and women can have sexual contact.

KING: it works for them. The commune prospered for 30 years. But the country is more religious. The government is suing the mormons in the west. Tony is here again.

Wife: they always say that when the government pursues the mormons, we must watch our tails. They’ll be next to us.

Kim: so in 1880, members voted to end the free love commune and focus on thriving businesses. Oneida will be owned by 200 adult members. When the charismatic John humphreys died, his son Pierre ponte took over about 1900.

WONDERLY: most of us are smart because we have to live through life. Occasionally we meet a really smart person. When this happens, it is correct. That’s what Pierre ponte did.

KING: Pierrepont’s religion is business. He realized that America’s middle class was growing, and that they could not afford 925 sterling silver. Oneida’s silver-plated silverware is an affordable alternative. Using the clever ads of cool young women and pretty housewives, he made a must-have Oneida.

But the spirit of the commune still guides the company’s values. Oneida built a small town for its workers. It helps them buy houses. It pays the teacher’s wages. It keeps wages low. It became a success of capitalism and took care of workers. It has thrived for decades.

Then there is a familiar story in American manufacturing: Oneida’s efforts to compete with foreign imports. A few years ago, Oneida filed for bankruptcy. The rest merged with another company to form the Oneida group. They still make tableware with the name Oneida on the back. Noel King, NPR news.

(arcade fire song “create comfort”)

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