The stirpiculture experiment at the Oneida commune would be the first eugenics program tested on early American soil. It went on for ten years, between 1869 and 1879. The term stirpiculture was coined by Oneida founder John Humphrey Noyes. He also developed the experiment through his interpretations of Plato, Charles Darwin, and Francis Galton. Noyes governed the experiment alongside a committee of select members. Men and women of the community were paired based on their exhibition of spiritual and mental qualities.
John Noyes was the primary judge of the men and women selected to produce children for the experiment. The committee served an advisory role. Together they approved or denied requests of commune members to have a child. There was a set of prerequisite standards that applicants were expected to meet. Older men in the commune were especially sought after due to the commune’s idea of Ascending Fellowship and because Noyes believed they were much wiser and more spiritually sound. Women, on the other hand, were simply required to be between the ages of 20 and 42. Both men and women were chosen by their spiritual and virtuous qualities, rather than by physical ones. Each potential parent was required to sign a contract committing themselves to the experiment, as well as to God and his human representative John Noyes. The most important line of these pledges involved avoiding any “personal feelings in regard to child-bearing,” because it was believed that this quality would better serve the experiment and, most importantly, the Community.
Children in the commune were raised communally, not primarily by their biological parents. Their upbringing was guided by community “Mothers” and “Fathers” who were assigned the job of child care in a separate wing of the Oneida Community Mansion House. Many commune members assisted, and there was supposed to be a large pool of guidance and support for the children. The “stirpcults” grew up in a healthy country environment and isolated from chronic diseases that burdened early Americans.
Once a child was born they stayed with their mother for the first fifteen months of life. During this time the mother was encouraged to breastfeed her child. Breastfeeding was the only instance in which strong preference was permitted between mother and child. This was due to the Oneida beliefs in natural expressions of life. Once weaned from breastfeeding, the child was sent to live in the Children’s House. In the early era of the community, this house was actually a succession of rooms in the “Middle House”. Out of concern for creating a bond between the child and the community, the child would often be joined for sleep with a community member that would be changed out periodically to prevent special bonds from being formed.
Guidelines were established by the committee to guide parents to the appropriate relationship with their child. These were an extension of the Principles of Non-Attachment and commitment to the communal ideal. The point of this was to avoid an excessive relationship that failed to appropriately teach the child the fundamentals of the community. In cases where these guidelines were violated the mother or the child would be removed to a separate section of the community.
The experiment resulted in fifty-eight live births over ten years. The development and nourishment of these children were very diligently attended to, and the values of non-attachment were engrained into the children at a very young age. They were given a lot of playtime, and space to do it in. Exercise was an important principle in the commune. Both girls and boys were provided an education, some of the children even went on to college and were encouraged to do so. They lived under the constant guidance of elder community members. Noyes’ son kept detailed records of the growth and development of the experiment’s children. The experiment came to an end in 1879 as the community began to collapse.
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