This utopian agrarian commune was established in Harvard, Massachusetts by Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Allen in 1843. If the former’s name sounds vaguely familiar, you are right – he was the father of Louisa May who lived there as a little woman. Alcott came up with the idea in 1841, travelled to England to drum up support, persuading Lane to cross the pond and stump up $1,800 to buy the 90-acre Wyman farm.
Alcott and Lane were what was known as Transcendalists who did not see God as the figure portrayed in the Bible but as a sort of world spirit. Spiritual regeneration was linked to physical health, they believed, and that “outward abstinence was a sign of inward fullness”. By working as a community they thought that individuals would improve and thought that the innocence of children would have a rejuvenating effect on the older members of the commune. They sought to separate themselves from the wider world by refraining from trade, renouncing personal property and eschewing hired labour.
Each day at the commune started with a purging cold-water shower. Meals were simple and vegan, mainly consisting of fruit and water. Many vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and beets were avoided because by growing downwards they displayed a lower nature. Their clothes were made of linen and their shoes were canvas. Cotton was forbidden because it was the product of slave labour and animal products such as wool and leather were verboten. Animals, being of lower intelligence than humans, were not to be exploited for their meat or their labour.
It is difficult to reconstruct exactly how many residents or “consecrated cranks” as they became known lived on the commune. There were no formal admission requirements and it seems that members came and went. The best account of the group is to be found in Louisa M Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats and, probably, at its peak it numbered no more than fourteen.
Whilst the commune had many lofty ideals, they contained the seeds that were to prove the rapid undoing of the group. When they took possession of Wyman’s they were already a month behind the usual planting schedule. Their refusal to exploit dumb animals meant that ploughing and preparing the land was more onerous. Eschewing root vegetables which are generally easier to grow compounded their problems as did the fact that only about 10 acres of the site were arable and there were only ten old apple trees when they arrived. Nonetheless by July they had planted 8 acres of grains, one of vegetables and one of melons.
Even more fatal to the group’s fortunes were the structural constraints in which it operated. The men preferred to spend their time teaching and philosophising rather than breaking their backs in the sun. Alcott and Lane wielded almost unlimited power and there was an oppressive and joyless atmosphere about the place. Even Alcott’s wife was moved to write, “I am prone to indulge in an occasional hilarity but seem drowned down into still quiet and peaceless order..and am almost suffocated in the atmosphere of restriction and form”.
Despite the introduction of an ox and cow the commune could not grow enough food to sustain themselves and after just seven months it disbanded. Alcott took it personally and didn’t eat for several days. Ralph Waldo Emerson helped them buy a home for them in Concord. Joseph Palmer, one of the consecrated cranks, took the farm on, using it as a refuge for former reformers and it is now a museum.