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Utopian Communities


UTOPIAN COMMUNITIES. Although they date to the earliest days of U.S. history, Utopian communities, intentional communities created to perfect American society, had become institutionalized in American thought by the 1840s. Various groups, struggling under the pressures of urbanization and industrialization, challenged the traditional norms and social conservatism of American society. Their desire to create a perfect world often lay in sharp contradiction to the world in which they lived, one in which capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, immigration, and the tension between the individual and the community challenged older forms of living.

The first American Utopias grew out of Robert Owen's attempt to create a model company town in New Lanark, Scotland. In the United States, Owen organized the New Harmony Community along the Wabash River in western Indiana in 1825. There the residents established a socialist community in which everyone was to share equally in labor and profit. Just months after the creation of a constitution in January 1826, the thousand residents at New Harmony divided into sub-communities that then disintegrated into chaos. In 1825 Francis Wright established another Owenite community at Nashoba in Tennessee. Wright had hoped to demonstrate that free labor was more economical than slavery, but Nashoba attracted few settlers, and the community closed its doors within a year.

Transcendentalist Influence

Transcendentalists of the 1840s believed that the true path lay in the perfection of the individual, instead of reform of the larger society. The individualistic quality of transcendentalism gave it a more spiritual than social quality, one that also influenced later Utopian movements. Many of the figures of transcendentalism embraced the liberating qualities of individualism, making man free of the social, religious, and family restrictions of the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, rejected the decaying Puritan lifestyle of New England's past in favor of the Romantic world of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For transcendentalists, a higher reality lay behind that afforded by the senses; a reality in which people could understand truth and eternity. To reach that world, humankind had to transcend the concrete world of the senses in favor of a more mystical definition of nature. To escape the modern world, transcendentalists fled into model Utopian communities.

The most important of these communities was Brook Farm, established in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. Residents hoped to free themselves from the competition of the capitalist world so as to work as little as possible, all the while enjoying the fruits of high culture. Unlike their European counterparts, American transcendentalists embraced the quest for a higher moral law. Far from a simple rejection of American society, the creators of Brook Farm, chiefamong them George Ripley, a Unitarian minister from Boston, wanted to create an alternative to the capitalist state, to found a new "city on a hill." The life of the mind that the transcendentalists so valued was one of the most important components of life at Brook Farm. Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Dial editor Margaret Fuller all made regular visits. While the cultural life of Brook Farm blossomed, management of its practical matters languished. Ripley's decision to recruit more farmers over thinkers eventually alienated even Emerson. After a serious fire in 1846, the farm was sold in 1847 and the society dissolved.

Not long after the failure of Brook Farm, another transcendentalist community was established at Fruit-lands, Massachusetts. The residents of Fruitlands, originally organized in 1843 by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, rejected the market economy and chose a life of subsistence agriculture. But Fruitlands attracted the eccentric more than the genuinely alienated, including a number of "body purists"—one of whom advocated nude moonbathing. As a group, they rejected clothing made of cotton (as it was manufactured by slave labor) and that made of wool (as it was taken from sheep without their consent), as well as root vegetables and all animal food products in favor of fruit and corn meal. As in later Utopian experiments, women failed to enjoy the full benefits of the cooperative society. Instead, as Abigail Alcott noted, women did most of the work while the men passed the day in deep conversation. The colony lasted only through the end of 1844 and was eventually sold at auction, with Lane jailed for nonpayment of taxes.

As Brook Farm and Fruitlands dissolved, converts to the ideas of Charles Fourier in the United States grew to take the place of the transcendentalists. Fourierists believed that small, highly organized communities (or phalanxes) would allow residents to perfectly develop their talents and inclinations, free from the influence of traditional capitalist society. The standard phalanx consisted of 1,620 people living in common dwellings and working in their natural trades. In America, Arthur Brisbane became the chiefadvocate of phalanxes, hoping that they would complete what, to him, was the unfinished Revolution of 1776 by ending wage slavery. By the 1840s, Brisbane and his disciples had founded more than one hundred phalanxes across the country, from New York to Texas. Although most of these communities failed in short order, their existence underscored the general dissatisfaction some workers felt with industrialization and the triumph of the capitalist order.

Other mid-nineteenth century Utopian experiments found some success by organizing themselves around a religious principle or charismatic leader. The Shakers, whose origins dated to the visions of Ann Lee Stanley during the American Revolution, believed that mankind suffered due to the lust of Adam and Eve. Mother Ann favored celibacy as the path to perfection. She and a small group of followers founded a church outside of Albany, New York, in 1774, where they became known as "Shaking Quakers," or Shakers. They withdrew into isolated communities where they could escape from the larger society's wicked nature. They abolished not only property but marriage, demanding a strict commitment to celibacy. By the 1840s, more than twenty Shaker communities had been established in greater New England. Due to their strict rejection of marriage and a reduced number of available converts, the Shaker movement slipped into decline by midcentury and never recovered.


The Oneida Colony, established in New York in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, combined the cooperativist movement of the Fourierists and the marriage taboo of the Shakers to produce a new form of Utopian community. At Oneida, the community practiced the doctrine of complex marriage, where all members of the community were married to each other. The community rejected monogamy and marriage as sources of gender inequality and strictly regulated childbirth and childcare. Unlike previous attempts at self-sufficiency, Oneida's silverware production remained profitable well after Noyes himself had been forced to flee to Canada to avoid persecution for adultery.

By the late nineteenth-century, a number of separatist communities were established in the United States. These communities were often constructed on the frontier, where participants could practice their religion free from outside influence. One such group was the Hutterites, an association of German-speaking separatists that established hundreds of communities in the United States and Canada. Unlike the Amish, who rejected the use of machinery, the Hutterites were willing to use modern tools and dress in contemporary clothing, within certain limitations. Hutterite society was strictly ordered and work schedules centrally planned. Founded by Jakob Hutter in the sixteenth century, the Hutterites embraced pacifism and a communal lifestyle. Each community in the Hutterite Brethren played an important role in the creation of new Hutterite colonies. Once a colony reached between one hundred and one hundred fifty members, the community split and established a new settlement. Hutterites migrated to the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, settling heavily in the Dakotas. Their numbers

grew until World War I, when compulsory military service and anti-German sentiment led many to migrate to Canada. The Hutterite Brethren's separatist model, shared by many other religious and secular communities, became common in the following century. Other separatist communes could be found among the Jewish migrants of the Am Olam movement in Louisiana, South Dakota, and Oregon.

Religious Utopian Communities

The industrial problems and the power of Darwinism in the late nineteenth century encouraged the formation of a number of religious Utopian communities. Christian Socialists led by Ralph Albertson established the Christian Commonwealth Colony in Georgia in 1896. There they advocated applied Christianity and published The Social Gospel before disbanding four years later due to financial problems. A group of disaffected Methodists, growing out of the Holiness Movement, created the Society of the Burning Bush. Burning Bush established the Metropolitan Institute of Texas in eastern Texas where profits and property were held in common. The community thrived until the agricultural troubles of the 1920s led to a forced sale. Another in the series of the short-lived communes of the 1890s, the Koreshan Unity communes of Cyrus Teed attacked the Copernican system and taught that the earth was hollow. Teed mixed more standard Utopian ideals of community and cooperation with newer Asian religious traditions. They created communities in Chicago and San Francisco. Eventually, the Chicago group established a third community in Estero, Florida—"New Jerusalem," where most of the Chicago group migrated before eventually dispersing in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1900, another Chicago group, led by the charismatic John Alexander Dowie, established Zion City, which eventually had a population of eight thousand. Dowie raged against the intrusion of the secular world into the religious world. Yet Dowie found little wrong in capitalism. He believed business principles were divinely ordained, attacking even the leaders of the Pullman strike of 1894. Dowie kept a tight grip on community life in Zion City before being overthrown in 1906. Still, Zion City served as jumping off point for numerous post-war healing evangelists, many of whom were Pentecostal, including F. F. Bosworth and Mary Woodworth-Etter. Zion was one of more than twenty-five of these religious Utopian communities established between 1865 and 1920.

Secular Utopias

Secular Utopian communities were also common at the end of the nineteenth century. Many of these were socialist in nature, and many were inspired by Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887. Published in 1888, Bellamy's novel describes how the capitalism of the late nineteenth century matured to a state-sponsored and centrally planned economy that ensured equal wages and equality. It sold over one million copies and influenced a number of communes. One such colony was Equity Colony in Washington. Founded by Wallace Lermond, the colony served as a model for socialist government, one residents hoped would later convert the United States to socialism. Named after Bellamy's 1894 novel, it too ran short of money and was later placed under the management of the New York anarchist Alexander Horr. Another socialist colony was created outside of Nashville, Tennessee, by Julius A. Wayland in 1895. Publisher of the socialist newspaper The Coming Nation, Wayland purchased eight hundred acres where middle-class urbanites could mix with socialist intellectuals and poor Tennessee farmers. As it grew larger, the divisions within the community surfaced and ultimately doomed the experiment. In the 1880s, the Kaweah Co-Operative Commonwealth in Tulare County, California, revived the earlier traditions of Brook Farm. Residents included many artists, musicians, and spiritualists. The group fell into infighting, however. Accused of various criminal activities, they were eventually evicted, and Kaweah became part of Sequoia National Park. Still other communities returned to the Shaker and Oneida positions on sexuality and family. The Dawn Valcour Community, a spiritualist–free love commune in Vermont and New York, rejected the rigid Victorian family structure and challenged traditional Protestant definitions of love and marriage.

Anarchist and Other Utopias

In competition with the socialist Utopias were anarchist versions. Josiah Warren founded one such community in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. It was the first American anarchist community, and members invested in the local sawmill. The community eventually collapsed because of epidemic disease and poor finances. Still other societies embraced Henry George's plan to levy a single tax on land values to counteract the wealth accumulated by rental income. Some socialists attempted to establish Single Tax colonies between the 1890s and the 1930s. Fiske Warren of Massachusetts created several such intentional communities, including Tahanto in Massachusetts and Halidon in Maine. While anarchist communities revolved around local control and grassroots democracy, some businesses in the United States found interest in planned communities. One of the most famous of the period was Pullman, Illinois, founded and funded in the 1880s by George Pullman, who manufactured railway cars. Pullman refused to allow its residents, all of whom worked for him, to buy their homes. Residents were paid in Pullman dollars and had to buy from his company store, often at inflated prices. In 1894, Pullman workers protested a planned wage reduction with a strike that eventually led to a national boycott by the American Railway Union, one that made Pullman a symbol of corporate control.

Government Communities

Utopian communities waned in the 1920s. The depression of the 1930s, however, led the U.S. government to create a number of similar settlements, though the theory behind those experiments was not quite "utopian." The Resettlement Administration, in particular, created a number of agricultural communities, hoping to address the growing refugee problem among sharecroppers in the South. Dyess Colony and St. Francis River Farms in Arkansas were two such, though both of them reverted to planter control almost immediately. In the 1930s a few private communities held on, but they remained small and less influential. Two exceptions were the Sunrise Community (Stelton, New Jersey) and the Catholic Worker Movement, both of which ultimately failed as Utopian communal movements.

In the aftermath of World War II, Utopian communities flourished in the United States, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. The youth counterculture of the 1960s spawned not only the Free Speech Movement and antiwar protests, but a longing for rural communes in California, New Mexico, and as far east as Vermont. These communes, like the Utopians of the 1840s, organized in ways that challenged the economic and sexual standards of the day. They rejected materialism in favor of self-sufficiency and were especially important in their early advocacy of stricter environmental policies. Some were clearly escapist, like The Farm Eco-Village, created in 1971 by hippies from the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Based in Summertown, Tennessee, the Farm produced its own food and power and embraced the simplicity and self-reliance common to Utopian communities of the nineteenth century.

Still others migrated to new religious communities. The Jesus People Movement grew out of the charismatic revivals of the 1960s. They combined the hippie lifestyle with a deep devotion to Christianity. The "Jesus Freaks" represented the power of the new charismatic Christianity among American youth. New Age movements, ranging from yoga and transcendental meditation to the disciples of Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church, also attracted a large following in the United States. Still others migrated to more cultic communities. The mass suicide and murder of nine hundred members of the People's Temple at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1977 underscored the danger of ideologically homogenous communities led astray by a charismatic leader. Many of the new cults of the 1970s and 1980s encouraged their members to wall themselves off from larger society, often painting apocalyptic visions of a future filled with totalitarianism, race riots, and communist control. Especially disturbing was the emergence of many neo-fascist and racial-religious communities like Identity Christians, who embraced anti-Semitism and the inevitability of a racial revolution, leading in turn to a popular backlash against such extremism.

Internet as Utopia

While religious fanaticism had given Utopian communities a bad name by the end of the twentieth century, other forces worked to revive them. The numbers of and faith in technology-based Utopian experiments grew throughout the last half of the century. Some Utopian communities consisted of groups of people spread across the United States fighting for a better and safer world, like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Others continued to employ the older Utopian model of visionary settlements isolated from the larger world. One such technological community was Celebration, a corporate-sponsored Utopian dream of the Disney Company to create the ideal twenty-first century community. Modern Utopian communities increasingly cross into the digital world. By the 1990s, some believed the early Internet could become the long-promised Utopian paradise, where class, gender, and racial stereotypes might be stripped away in favor of complete equality. At first the Internet seemed the triumph of the anarchist ideal. In many places small groups came together on bulletin board systems (BBS), among other media, to create online communities modeled closely on the Utopian ideals of the nineteenth century. One of the best of the early BBSes of the mid-1990s was, where mostly young midwestern university students came together to discuss art, politics, and culture in a professionally moderated and intellectually intense environment. Yet, by the end of the decade, most of these boards were in decline. The Internet grew more corporate and mirrored the larger society from which the early Internet pioneers hoped to flee.

Many of these communities shared a similar set of assumptions and concerns. The Industrial Revolution had challenged American social institutions, forcing working-class Americans to turn first to labor unions and then to Populism. At the same time, industrial society also challenged the assumptions of the Victorian middle class. Many in the transcendentalist era longed for a free-market Utopia, where government nearly ceased to exist and workers profited from a fair balance between capital and labor. Other technocratic Utopians, like Edward Bellamy, Fiske Warren, and George Pullman, believed that the most capable, in contrast to the most political, should be placed in positions of power. Many others, like John Noyes and the Hutterites, found solace in religion, believing that new religious movements would better protect and structure human society. Still others based their Utopias in nature or technology. Many of these philosophies were certainly at odds with one another. Yet the search for an ideal society remained a constant theme throughout the course of American history, dating from the Puritans to the "Jesus Freaks" of the 1970s. All but the most dystopian of the religious movements believed that American society fell short of the ideal and needed great change to ensure the prosperity of all.


Fogarty, Robert S. All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements, 1860–1914. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Halloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680–1880. New York: Dover, 1961.

Kern, Louis. An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Shi, David E. The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

J. WayneJones

See alsoFourierism ; New Age Movement .

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Utopian Communities

Utopian Communities


Ideal Societies. For some Americans who felt that the new nations promise to make a better life for all was not being realized quickly enough, the answer was to withdraw from society and form Utopian communities, safe from the depravity and corruption of the rest of the world. These people were perfectionists, meaning that they believed it was possible to create an ideal society here on earth rather than having to wait until the next life. They held many different visions of the perfect society, almost as many as there were Utopian communities, but they can be divided into two types: those who withdrew from society to live in a more traditional, religious world safe from contamination; and those who hoped to reform (not escape) society by creating experimental communities that would serve as models for the rest of the world. While these communities varied in size and duration, they all shared the hope that through an experiment in communal living they could create a paradise here on earth, be it secular or religious.

Transcendentalist Utopias. There were two wellknown transcendentalist utopias, the first of which was Brook Farm, started by George Ripley in 1841 near Boston. The idea behind the community. Ripley wrote, was to substitute a system of brotherly cooperation for one of selfish competition; and thus to impart a greater freedom, simplicity, truthfulness, refinement, and moral dignity to our mode of life. Among the famous writers associated with Brook Farm were Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who both lived there for a while, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who made frequent visits. The community was a joint-stock venture and subsisted on communal labor, manufacturing items such as sashes, doors, and blinds. But the jewel of the community was its school, which attracted many students preparing for Harvard. When in 1846 a fire consumed a new (uninsured) building, members decided to dissolve Brook Farm due to financial troubles. A less successful transcendentalist community was Fruitlands, started by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in 1843 near Harvard, Massachusetts. Lane dictated that all members practice celibacy and follow a vegetarian diet and that their farm not utilize animal labor, which he considered as bad as enslaving human beings. If it had not been for the women and children, who brought in the crop while some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away, Louisa May Alcott wrote, the community would have starved. Within the year Lane left, withdrawing his money and leaving Fruitlands to dissolve.

New Harmony. This secular Utopian community, the first of its kind in America, was founded in 1825 by Robert Owen, a British industrialist who had seen the degradation and poverty of the working class in England. Without a specific plan but a general faith in perfectionism, he hoped to create a society where workers labored together instead of viewing themselves as individuals, thus providing the inhabitants with economic security and a more satisfying social life. Intrigued by claims Owen made about the future of his society, nine hundred people appeared at New Harmony, Indiana, to undertake the experiment. To begin, Owen owned all of the land and equipment, intending eventually to ease the society into communal living. He and his sons were in charge, but Owen was absent for long periods of time and did not provide a clear, concrete vision for the community or precise rules for governing it in his absence. The community prospered economically, producing candles, soap, hats, and boots and operating saw- and gristmills, but housing was inadequate, and the town was overcrowded. Lacking leadership, the community had a difficult time solving these problems. And when in 1826 Owen broadcast his radical views denouncing private property, the institution of marriage, and organized religion, he was roundly attacked in the American press, weakening public support for the community. Many inhabitants, dissatisfied with Owens views or desiring a religious emphasis in their everyday lives, left New Harmony to create their own offshoot communities. In 1828 Owen sold the land and property to community members and withdrew from the experiment. Many lived on in New Harmony as small-time farmers or artisans.


Louisa May Alcotts satirical account of what it was like to live in her fathers experimental utopian community, Fruitlands, describes the founders intentions and reveals the stark differences between the spiritual concerns of her idealistic father and the more practical concerns of her mother:

This prospective Eden at present consisted of an old red farm-house, a dilapidated barn, many acres of meadowland, and a grove. Ten ancient apple trees were all the chaste supply which the place offered as yet; but, in the firm belief that plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness, these sanguine founders had christened their domain Fruitlands.

Here Timon Lion (Charles Lane) intended to found a colony of Latter Day Saints, who, under his patriarchal sway, should regenerate the world and glorify his name for ever. Here Abel Lamb (Bronson Alcott), with the devoutest faith in the high ideal which was to him a living truth, desired to plant a Paradise, where Beauty, Virtue, Justice, and Love might live happily together, without the possibility of a serpent entering in. And here his wife, unconverted but faithful to the end, hoped, after many wanderings over the face of the earth, to find rest for herself and a home for her children.

Source: Louisa May Alcott, Transcendental Wild Oats, in Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

Nashoba. Frances Wright, a Scottish reformer, was inspired by the New Harmony experiment to form her own community in 1826. She had a plan to end slavery in the South without negative repercussions for slaveholders

by creating communities where slaves could work the land, learn skills they could use to support themselves, and eventually buy their freedom. After they were free, Wright intended that they would be sent to Haiti or Africa. In addition, she hoped to create a cooperative community where people of both races could live together based on the Owenite model. She bought 640 acres in western Tennessee, called Nashoba, where she implemented a pilot program. She bought fifteen slaves who worked under an overseer, but the land was difficult to farm, and little was accomplished. Owen, who visited Nashoba in 1827, described what he saw: Three or four squared log houses and a few small cabins for the slaves the only buildings. Slaves released from the fear of the lash worked indolently under the management of Whitby (the overseer), whose education in an easy-going Shaker village had not at all fitted him for the post of plantation overseer. Eventually Wright had to accept that her dreams of an interracial community that allowed all of its inhabitants to reach their greatest potential were not being realized. She spent most of her time away from Nashoba, either at New Harmony or promoting her ideas, which included free love, sexual equality, and interracial relationships, all of which drew intense censure from an American public that branded her a female monster whom all decent people ought to avoid and made her plan untenable. In 1828 she returned to Nashoba to find it bankrupt. She had the slaves freed, transported to Haiti, and set up in their own homes.


Seymour R. Kesten, Episodes: Daily Life in Experimental Colonies Dedicated to Changing the World (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993);

Alice Felt Tyler, Freedoms Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1944).

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