Visiting Oneida


     This spring, I was invited to fly to Italy to spend a couple of weeks with Carlo, a dear member of Windward's Away Team who lives about 25 kilometers west of Turin, Italy. For various reasons, we decided to delay the trip until September.

     Instead of flying directly to Italy, I decided to take an extended layover to visit some places in New York State and Massachusetts that were home to two remarkable intentional communities that we've studied and learned much from; the Oneida Community and the Hancock Shaker Village. I was also delighted by the chance to stay with Lindsay's parents in her home town of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

An Oneida-style dress
     A hundred and sixty years after it was founded, the Oneida Community still stands as one of the most remarkable intentional communities ever formed, and nearby Syracuse University is home to the largest archive of first hand Oneida Community materials that I'm aware of.

     After some correspondence with the staff of the library's special collections department, Opalyn and I were granted the opportunity to examine some of the first hand materials stored in the archive. Of particular interest to me was one of the distinctive dresses worn by the women of the Oneida Community.

     It's difficult for a modern person to appreciate the degree to which women were held in bondage in the 1840's. Custom demanded that they wear floor length dresses that could weight thirty pounds, a fashion which prevented them from taking part in many activities. The early days of the Oneida Community's efforts to establish itself created an opportunity to embrace a series of liberating changes, but that's not to say that change came easily.

     "It was in the upper room of an Indian log house which we think of now as the cradle of the community, rich in memories, that the writer assisted in the clandestine preparation of two short dresses for Mrs. C---- and Mrs. N----, who proposed to experiment on the fashion described in the Annual Report. This was in June, 1848. In the present mellow state of public sentiment, it is impossible to appreciate the heroism that was then required, to appear in the semi-masculine attire, now so much applauded. There seemed to be but one opinion in the world, that it was unfeminine and immodest; and the whole atmosphere was charged with this accusation. The principality of shame was the power that was met and broken by this movement. We were accustomed to defy fashion, and felt freedom and toleration in disputing its sway; but the despotism of shame was absolute. All our spiritual sensations convinced us that this principality suffered irrecoverable injury at that time."

     "The style adopted by Mrs. C---- and N---- was the plain, loose pantaloons: and though some of us have tried at different times the Turkish fashion, it has never suited; we have always returned with decided preference to the first pattern, originated in the Indian cabin, as the most simple and convenient, if not the most elegant."

          ‒ pg 6, Oneida Community Journal, Vol. 25 No. 2

     Opalyn and I were very excited, and a bit in awe, of the opportunity to view, touch and measure an actual Oneida dress. It's one thing to read of the incredible achievements of the Oneida Community, and an entirely different thing to touch a dress that was made by and for a Oneida Community woman.

Opalyn prepares to open the dress box


     Initially, I was mildly perturbed at all the rules while visiting the Special Collections Research Center of the Syracuse University Library but I wanted to examine the dress and read some of the letters so we stowed my purse, the laptop case, pens, paper and set the electronics to silent as we prepared to peruse the boxes we had requested.

     The moment I had the dress box in front of me the agitation vanished and I recognized the importance of the restrictions at keeping the collection available for many years to come. Amazement enveloped me as I realized I was about to handle a dress that was created so that women could actually do meaningful work.

The Oneida Dress

     Uncovering the dress was quite fun as Walt took several photos then helped me lay the dress out on a nearby table. Speaking in hushed voices so as not to disturb other patrons, added a sense of reverence to the task of measuring and recording the details with the hope of better understanding how this dress was made. The dress was made of a surprisingly light weight fabric and has a beautiful repeating pattern of roses and stripes.

close-up of the dress bodice
can you find the little pocket at the waist line?

     My favorite detail was coming across the tiny pocket at the waist line. It was about 1.5" wide by 2" deep, and I kept wondering what was kept in this tiny pocket?

     The pantaloons or pantalets, as they were called by the Oneida women, seemed to button onto a type of garter belt and covered the leg from mid-thigh to ankle, while the dress come to the knees.


     After measuring and photographing the seams, hems and inner details that would go a long way to creating a complete understanding of how the dress was constructed, we spent an hour reading through two of the many boxes of Oneida correspondence stored in the archive.

      It was both touching and exciting to hold in my hands actual pieces of paper that conveyed the thoughts of these remarkable communitarians, to "hear" them speak of the ordinary details of their lives and the day to day challenges that they dealt with. In that the Oneida Community, from first to last, maintained a printing press and regularly published information about what they were doing and why, I already understood that it would take years to read and thoughtfully consider the literature they left behind; looking through just two of the many boxes of archived correspondence, I gained a new appreciation of the challenge of building a comprehensive understanding of how they accomplished their remarkable achievements.

      With heads spinning, we returned the boxes and expressed our thanks for the very professional and yet warm manner in which we'd been made welcome. Climbing back into our rental car, it was time to head for the Oneida Mansion itself.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71