windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Better Life – Part Five

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The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education (1841 – 1847)

This utopian commune was located in a 175 acre farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and was the brain child of a former Unitarian minister, George Ripley, and his wife, Sarah. They were enamoured with Transcendentalism which held, inter alia, that people are at their best when they are truly self-reliant and independent. The underlying objective of the commune was to create a society where the intellectual and the manual worker could co-exist. Each member could choose to do whatever work suited them best and they would all be paid at the same rate, a dollar a day, even women, a radical concept at the time.

To finance the venture Brook Farm was established as a joint stock company. Shares were sold at $500 a time with the promise of 5% of the profits and a vote. Initially, there were 10 investors but over time this rose to 32. In all, there were some 70 or 80 members of the commune at its peak only those who could afford to buy shares were full members. The commune generated money by selling agricultural produce and handmade clothing but its real money-spinner was the school, run by Mrs Ripley.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a fully paid up member but it seemed he never really signed up to the underlying principles of the movement, rather seeing it as an investment opportunity. He resigned from the farm on 17th October 1842, commenting, “even my Custom House experience was not such a thraldom and weariness; my mind and heart were freer…Thank God, my soul is not utterly buried under a dung-heap”. Nonetheless, the commune seemed to make some headway in realising the founders’ lofty ambitions, even though there was an imbalance between intellectuals and people who would roll their sleeves up.

The seeds of the commune’s demise were sown when it adopted some of the ideas of the French Socialist, Charles Fourier, who espoused a more communal approach to living. This caused a schism and some of the disillusioned members left. In 1844 the commune sunk all its available funds into constructing a large central building, known as the Phalanstery, big enough to accommodate 14 families and included a large assembly hall. This drain on available funds meant that a system of what were euphemistically called retrenchments aka cuts were introduced and meat, coffee, tea and butter were no longer served at the table. Members could have meat but they had to pay extra for it.

In November 1845 smallpox broke out and although no one died, 26 Brook Farmers were infected. Ripley, meanwhile, was holding off the creditors, agreeing with suppliers and shareholders a write-off of $7,000. Further disaster struck on 3rd March 1846 when fire swept through the Phalanstery, completely destroying it. Naturally, it was uninsured and for Ripley this was pretty much the last straw. He moved out in May 1846 and others slowly followed suit. One described the slow disintegration as like apple petals slowly drifting to the ground. The whole experience was “dreamy and unreal”.

On its dissolution, Brook Farm had accumulated debts of $17,445. Ripley took it all personally, telling a friend, “I can now understand how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral”. Fair play to him, though, he took a job at the New York Tribune and thirteen years later had paid off the debt.

print-house

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, published in 1852, is a novel set in a utopian community which shares some of the features of Brook Farm. The only thing standing on the site from the time of the commune is a rather splendid wooden print house.

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