Setting the Record Straight: Visiting the Oneida Community

“In gathering here and trying to live a true life, we did not intend to set ourselves up for a curiosity or show of any kind.” ~Oneida Community Circular, June 23, 1859

The Oneida community’s relationship with outsiders was an art form. Community members led visitors around the Mansion House, actively trying to dispel rumors that they were yet another sect like the Mormons, while also showcasing the affluence they achieved by taking on this lifestyle. However, as a visitor, visitors were made aware that certain elements of their life and personal space were off limits. From the very beginning, the Oneida community attracted visitors, sought out customers to buy their products, and accepted visitors for carefully curated tours of their public spaces. Through trial and error, the Perfectionists eventually codified certain practices of “being on show,” that included visits to their small museum, invitations to their strawberries and cream festivals, tours of the grounds, and enjoying ticketed food in the Tontine. Since visitors were inquisitive about their lifestyle, the community thought it would be more beneficial to physically show how they lived. However, their unwillingness to showcase each and every room, hallway, or wing within the Mansion and grounds perhaps left visitors more confused than before they came.

While The Circular, the Oneida community’s periodical, commented heavily upon how many visitors came to Oneida and what they did while they toured the community Mansion House and grounds, the community always seemed a bit perplexed as to why outsiders would want to come and see their way of life. Upon arrival, visitors were asked to enter through the back door of the Mansion House directly into a reception room. Here they were either given a tour of the grounds or were able to purchase a ticket and arrange for a meal prepared by the community. Since the community did not offer tea, coffee, alcohol or meat, the meals prepared would have been some combination of milk, butter, cheese, eggs, bread, and fruits. If visitors took the tour, they were offered a chance to see five other spaces besides the reception room. Their first stop on the tour was the Mansion Pile, a sort of atrium space which led to the wings, as well as the second floor. At this point the visitor's interests must have piqued, since they were not permitted to enter the wings which held various restricted areas including the children’s rooms and kitchen, the Turkish bath, the second floor seating parlors, and of course community member’s bedrooms. Instead, they were taken to the parlor and the library where they were shown a number of the latest periodicals, saw shelves housing nearly 3,300 books, and were given the chance to view photographs in a stereoscope. Visitors were welcome to read until visiting hours were over, roughly about 8:00 p.m. If the visitors headed to the next stop on the tour, they would have found themselves on the second floor looking at a sort of cabinet of curiosities at what amounts to the Oneida Community Museum. Finally, the visitors were shown the grand meeting hall, complete with two levels of seating, painted pictures of prominent Perfectionists, including John Humphrey Noyes, and a highly decorative trompe l'oeil painted ceiling. Visitors could then choose to tour the grounds of the community.

Though innocuous on the surface, some Oneida members complained about how visitors would not stick to paths and trample their gardens, while other visitors went “too far” into the community’s business by walking too close to the trap making operations. Only sanctioned visitors and those wishing to purchase or contract the community for traps would be allowed near the factories. Most likely visitors came out wanting more. The tour they just experienced likely brought up more questions and filled their heads with other fanciful stories. Visitors probably questioned why they weren’t permitted to see everything. What were the Perfectionists hiding in the wings? Several accounts in The Circular reveal some visitors questioned how the community slept, perhaps all in one bed? Others asked if children knew their parents, while others surmised that certain stone buildings on the property must be where they kept and tortured members who did not comply with community rules. The Perfectionists felt the need to allow visitors in, if not just to silence these ridiculous notions. Some visitors, labeled malicious by the community, questioned why the doors around the Mansion House were numbered, implying there must be  some occult meaning behind numbering the rooms 1-60. However, the answer was much less exciting: it was easier to know where members stayed, especially when rooms were subject to the occasional change of occupants.

On July 2, 1863 after years of visitation by non-community members, sometimes between 200-700 people at a time, the community decided to lay out rules for visitors in The Circular. Twelve rules were recorded which included:

1. The community does not provide spirituous liquors
2. No card playing
3. No taking of fruits and flowers in the garden
4. No careless driving
5. No boisterous talking
6. No scribbling on windows
7. No trampling on the community’s cultivated grounds
8. No entry into member’s private apartments
9. No entry into the trap works
10. Tea, coffee, and meat are banned from community property to keep within Oneida prescribed diet
11. The community closes at 8 p.m. for a communal meeting
12. The community is open on Sundays where visitors can attend a 2 p.m. religious meeting

While visitation by the public was both a welcome and contentious activity for the community, they continued the practice until the community disbanded in 1880. During the thirty years the community was “on show,” thousands upon thousands of visitors likely interacted with community members. By closely curating the visitor tours of the Mansion House and grounds, the Perfectionists created more confusion and intrigue than they desired. The public’s fascination with the community, their lifestyle, and their rules and rituals lasts even today, as the Oneida Mansion House is open to visitors for tours in some of the same areas, if not more, as those available to outsiders during the mid to late 19th century.



170 Kenwood Avenue, Oneida, NY 13421 ~ The Mansion House is open year-round excepting major holidays* with regularly scheduled house tours and other public programs. Exhibit areas are wheelchair accessible. Visitor parking is free and available in designated spaces along the front drive, along The Vineyard opposite the Mansion House, and in the north parking lot off Skinner Road. Wheelchair-accessible parking is designated in the north parking lot. Guided tours of the Oneida Community Mansion House are provided with museum admission, Wednesday through Saturday at 10:00am and 2:00pm, and on Sunday at 2:00pm from April-November. Guided tours are available by appointment December-March. Each tour lasts approximately 90 minutes. Group tours of the Mansion House are welcome with advance reservation and can be scheduled by calling (315) 363-0745. Self-directed tours of period rooms and exhibit galleries are possible at any time Monday through Saturday from 9:00am until 5:00 pm, and on Sundays from 12:00pm until 5:00 pm. Admission Prices as of Jan. 1, 2020 • Adults: $5 /$10.00 Seniors (60 or over) $8.00 • Students (with ID): $3 / $5.00 • Children Under 12 are admitted free (but no strollers or carriages, please), Children under 6 are Free Special Group Tours: $12.00 per person