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The ‘free love’ utopia behind your forks and knives

Episode 4 of “Nice Try!” explores how a radical, polyamorous 19th-century commune became a symbol of middle-class domesticity

Courtesy Oneida Community Mansion House

In the 1940s, it wasn’t sex that sold—it was love. When Oneida, a silverware manufacturer, took out ads, instead of focusing on forks and knives and serving spoons, they showed a passionate embrace between a woman and man returning from war.

“Dare to dream...dare to cut yourself a slice of heaven. Some day you’ll have it...the storybook house, the crackling fire...and on your table your treasured Community,” stated one ad for Oneida’s Community Plate flatware. The “Back Home for Keeps” ads were so popular that they became the subject of a 1945 LIFE magazine article that called them “a new kind of pin-up craze.”

The irony is these ads were selling monogamous, possessive love—the exact opposite of what the founders of Oneida stood for. Long before making flatware, Oneida was a religious commune founded on polyamory.

Oneida was founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, a former theological student who believed that paradise could be found on Earth through nontraditional sexual and familial structures. This included communal child raising; “complex marriage,” a term Noyes invented to describe how all Oneidans were married to one another; and sexual rituals, like male continence. Noyes built an enormous mansion in upstate New York for his “family” and amassed hundreds of followers. For years, the community succeeded. But after Noyes died, the community pivoted—into a thriving business.

In this episode, host Avery Trufelman speaks with Paul Gebhardt, creative director and senior vice president of design at the Oneida Group; Ellen Wayland-Smith, author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table and descendent of the Oneida Community; and Kate Wayland-Smith, resident of the Oneida Community Mansion House.

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