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Brook Farm-Transcendentalist Utopian history

Updated on November 3, 2015
Brook farm now
Brook farm now | Source

The 19th century interest in Transcendentalism led to forming a utopian community known as Brook Farm. It was an experiment in Utopian living in the 1840’s, which had a strong influence from transcendental philosophy. It was founded by a former Unitarian minister George Ripley with his wife Sophia. It was located at West Roxbury. Massachusetts.Brook Farm has also been known as the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education and as the Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education, according to Wikipedia. Like various other Utopian communities the participants in Brook Farm thought they could share the workload and have plenty of time for intellectual and leisure activates.

George Ripley who was the leader of the new community had a degree from Harvard and was a Unitarian minister. Having studied European authors of the times he was dissatisfied with many aspects of the contemporary society. As his interests widened he became concerned about social reform as well as theology.

The Print shop
The Print shop | Source

The intent of the community was to earn money from farming and production of hand made products such as clothing for sale. Participants were free to choose whatever work most appealed to them and earnings were equally divided. Women were paid on an equal basis with the men. Some income was also from charging fees to visitors. A school overseen by Mrs. Ripley, a co-founder of the community, was the main source of income. It offered a curriculum from pre-school through college preparation and attracted students from many counties. In addition education for adults was offered.

Ripley and his wife spent some weeks in 1840 at the Ellis farm in West Roxbury about nine miles from Boston. He liked spending time out in the open air there and chose it to. become Brooks Farm.

It was at the Transcendental Club in October of 1840 that George Ripley announced his plan for a Utopian project. It was to be an experiment to give an example to the rest of the world and was based on the idea that they could have “industry without drudgery, and equality without its vulgarity,” as quoted in Wikipedia. Like many such communities “...physical labor was perceived as a condition of mental well-being and health. There were some 80 or more active communities of this type in the United States in the 1840’s. Brook Farm was the first to be secular. In Ripley’s view Brook Farm would serve as a model for the rest of society.

The Ripley’s, with ten other investors, started a joint stock company in 1841. Ripley sold shares of the company for $500 each and promised 5% of the profits to each investor. Each shareholder had a vote in the decision-making and several held director positions, according to Wikipedia.

In April 1841, along with his wife and a few friends, Ripley initiated the “Practical Institute of Agriculture and Education” at the Ellis Farm, which became Brook Farm. It was a few months later that they bought the farm of about one hundred and seventy acres from Charles and Maria Ellis. An additional strip of land was bought which was twenty-two acres called “Keith Lot.” Other important members of the intellectual community were resident members of the farm, including Nathaniel Hawthorn, John s. Dwight, Charles A. Dana and Isaac Hecker. Visitors included Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E. Channing, Margaret Fuller, Brownson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Horace Greeley, and Orestes Brownson as listed on the age-of-the website.

Experiment with socialism of Charles Fourier

Brooks Farm never was a financial success and the community’s finances were never stable. In 1844 they used a socialist model based on that of Charles Fourier around 1844, although he was not out to start a Socialist society as such. Fourier theorized that conflict and suffering was due to the perversion of human goodness by wrong social organization. He thought that small planned communes might solve the problem. He thought communities organized according to his theory would prosper and fulfill people and provide social harmony and happiness. Brook Farm followed his theory.

Part of his goal was to get a balance between manual work and intellectual pursuits. That, I think, has some merit. Certainly it is a time-honored goal to have “a health mind in a health body.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay on “Fourierism and Socialists” in 1842 that was printed in “The Dial” the journal of New England Transcendentalism. The concept was a topic of conversation and became the foundation for many of the utopian communities across the United States during the nineteenth century, including Brooks Farm.

Albert Brisbane, who was largely responsible for spreading Fourier’s theories often visited Brook’s Farm and convinced George Ripley of the merits of Fourierism and the possibility of changing to that theory would bring in more money and prosperity to the community.

After restructuring, the community started to decline. Orestes Brownson visited in 1844 and found the “atmosphere of the place is horrible,” according to Wikipedia.

Loss of members

Although some members were in favor of the change to the Fourier plan, some were not enthused. Some members left, such as Isaac Hecker. He left the community and later converted to the Catholic Church, became a priest and founded a new order of priests known as the Paulist Fathers.

After the restructuring the Brook farm declined. By the winter of 1844-45 the community resorted to rationing such items as food, and clothing. Meat, tea, butter and sugar were saved for those whose health required it. By the following winter there were outbreaks of illness. Things got worse when smallpox started to infect members. Although, there were no deaths 26 members were infected, as noted in Wikipedia.

Ripley tried to negotiate with creditors and stockholders to ease the financial problems and they did agree to cancel $7,000 of debt.

A building, which was central to Brooks Farm plans, was progressing well but caught fire on March 3, 1846. It burned to the ground within two hours. Since the building was not insured it was the financial setback the led to the financial end of the farm project.

Ripley himself broke unofficially with the Brook farm in May of 1846.Slowly members broke away. Ripley’s book collection, which had served as a library for the community, was sold at auction to help pay the communities debts. Ripley eventually paid off the debts but it took him 13 years.

Brook farm when it was used as Camp Andrew in Civil War.
Brook farm when it was used as Camp Andrew in Civil War. | Source

Brook Farm

Aftermath of Brook Farm

John Plummer bought the land from Brook Farm in 1849 and it was eventually sold to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.

· It became Camp Andrew for training the Second Massachusetts Regiment.

· In the 1970’s most of the building burned down.

· In 1965 it was declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

· Part of the land now is a Nature reserve.

· The Baker Street Jewish cemeteries use another part

The Transcendentalist lost interest in the community when it converted to Fourierism. Others criticized the concept of communal living because it conflicted with the nuclear family.


Utopian Societies with a variety of goals were fairly common in the 19th Century and later. Mostly they were based on idealistic goals like Brook Farm. However, despite the good intentions and idealism of members most did not work out. In my opinion, they failed because they were not realistic as to economics or human nature.


Wikipedia Article on Brook Farm

age-of the article on The Brook Farm Community

© 2011 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      alwrites, To a large extent it is a matter of leadership. Such communities are usually led by a charismatic, strong leader. Many fall apart when the leader dies. The communes of the 1960s probably lacked leadership because of the basic philosophy of the group. Thanks for commenting.

    • ajwrites57 profile image

      AJ 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      dahoglund--enjoyed this hub. Utopian visions have always fueled man's imagination. Sadly, the attempts rarely last for long if at all. (As you point out.) Thomas More's book Utopia and Walden Two by B. F. Skinner were books I enjoyed on this subject. For some reason, religious communities seem to have better success; specifically monasteries and such. Thanks!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for reading this and commenting.I look forward to reading your article and I'm glad you liked this one.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you this excellent article about Brook Farm. I have a Hub coming out soon (that is already written) which has Brook Farm in it but just a small part in a larger story.

      You handled this story extremely well and it is finely written. I enjoyed reading this very much.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hello tipoague,Thank you for visiting and commenting.There were several Utopian experiments in the 19th Century. Brook Farm is mostly significant because it involved people who were social and intellectual leaders of the day.However, the tendency seems to be part of american culture such as the hippy movement of the 1960s.

    • tlpoague profile image

      Tammy 6 years ago from USA

      I have never heard of Brook Farm and found this to be some interesting reading. I will have to do some more reading on this. Thanks for sharing it.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      I don't want to say that only republics are ruled by law since I do not have that kind of knowledge. I am sure one could get half a dozen scholars together and get six different answers. From what I have found is that one definition of a democracy is it is ruled by majority.That seems to be the conflict in the US. People like myself who consider ourselves "conservatives" feel that the "law" in primary and that law is the constitution.On the other side some want to eliminate the Electoral college and have a pure popular vote, which would give most power to highly urbanized places.Hillary Clinton was one pushing the idea.

      As G.K. Chesterton pointed out Englishmen have long traditions in which an Englishman will act like an Englishman. America being a young country in terms of history have on "the constitution" or the "law" to determine how they should act.This was in relationship to explaining why America seemed to have such odd ways of doing things(from an Englishman's point of view)

      In college I wrote a paper on how Mark Twain in "Huckleberry Finn" reflects his dislike of "democracy" in this sense. Other Americans such as Frank Lloyd Write used the term "Mobocracy." I mention this to point out that it is a deep running subject in American culture.

      Thanks for your comments and I hope this is of some use to you.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 6 years ago

      Daho, thanks for explaining. I always understood that all countries were ruled by law, and didn't realize that only Republics were. For instance, the UK is a Monarchy, but it is still ruled by law. :)

      I agree that the States should look after their own business. In other words, I think things should be local. :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      The size of government does not have a lot to do with how much money is spent.It has to do with what is the proper role of government and here we are talking about the Federal government. Defense in stated in the constitution as part of the role of the general or federal government.The founders felt,as do I, that everything would be handled at the lowest element. The Federal government Things like workers rights might be a function of local governments. Same with welfare etc. It should not be involved in Education,or car companies.

      Thanks for you comment and expressing your point of view.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 6 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      That's an interesting topic. There are many somewhat utopian communities, schools, and retreat centers around these days, too. I don't agree with the saying that that government is best that governs least or that the smallest government is the best government. I think rather that that government is best that is just the right size to fulfill its mission under current conditions. The mission of the US government is stated in the Preamble to the Constitution. The government is bloated in some areas, such as the military and misguided subsidies of the already doing quite well, and is under funded and under staffed in other areas, such as protection of worker rights and of the environment. One commenter said many people are motivated by rewards. I recommend the book PUNISHED BY REWARDS by Kohn and this TED talk on why intrinsic motivations often get far better results than external rewards and punishments

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Eiddwin, Thanks for your comment. It is a bit of American history that somewhat touches on some more philosophical issues.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      There do seem to be some conflicts in the way people define Republic. The best I can come up with at the moment is a government ruled by law and limited by law.The law in this case being the U,S. constitution.By size of government usually refers to the size of the federal government.The constitution calls for it to be limited and only have the powers specified in the constitution.

      Unfortunately it seems that the judges including those on the supreme court have the attitude that they can make the law what they want it to be. It should only be changed by constitutional amendment.

      To put things as basically as I can, I think the Federal government should only ge involved when things cannot be handled by the private sector or by lower levels of government.For example, I think that there current recession would have resolved itself if this administration had done nothing. I also think many of the actions taken are not within the realms of the constitution such as taking over General Motors--for the record I did not approve of the Chrysler bail out some years ago.

      I probably misunderstood some comments you made about "building into the system" as my mind set is to get back to the system originally designed.Sorry if I offended or misinterpreted you.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

      A totally new subject for me but this made it no less interesting.

      Therefore I award it an up up and away.

      Take care and I wish you a very Happy New Year.


    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 6 years ago

      ACtually, Daho, I'm all for local government, i.e. the state verses the country. I think local government is vital. I think that's what you said. I'm curious as to how you define Republic. I don't think it has anything to do with the size of the government, does it? I'm curious why you think that I think we must have a perfect government. I just think that because there are errors all the time, it has to be built into a system. We do that with many things. We have fail safe systems on computers. When one system fails, another takes over. That is why there are two houses of Parliament. It's where there is two houses in the States. I think that needs to be improved upon. Nothing will ever be perfect. It's just not possible.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      In my day we were tested inside and out it seemed.Thanks for the information.

    • hirundine profile image

      hirundine 6 years ago from Nelson, B.C. Canada


      Most people are unfamiliar with Myer-Briggs work. The test and resulting types were developed by them and Dr. Carl Jung in 1930s and later. Many may have actually taken a test and not known it? I only came upon it a couple of years ago and realized that I had taken a test, very similar, for employment purpose.

      Since knowing about it and my further education of it. I can now see why I might feel, "out of step" with how our society is structured and why. I think I am right in saying? That, S. Korea has tested its children as a matter of course since the 1950s? The test itself is easy and takes about 20 mins. It can be found on internet and is generally free to take. You can take it over and seldom is a different personality type found, for the individual taking the test.

      Which makes the statement by Socrates, "Know thyself" a little more relevant. IMO.

      Once more, cheers! Jamie

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Mr. Smith thanks for commenting.Yes, I finally got around to writing about Brook Farm. I'm glad you like the result.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      hirundine, I am unfamiliar with these personality types but I agree with you that communities such as Brooks farm are unrealistic and bound to fail.I appreciate your comments.

    • Mr. Smith profile image

      Mr. Smith 6 years ago from California

      This was a neat way to do this topic. I'm glad you finally got around to it. Well done!

    • hirundine profile image

      hirundine 6 years ago from Nelson, B.C. Canada

      The idea of "Utopia", implies a one size fits all solution to society and the people in it. An idealistic and impossible dream.

      Based on personalities, as defined by Myer-Briggs. If anyone has used, or knows about this definition of personality? Then further examination of demographics, of these personality types. Shows that society is dominated, up to 68% or so; by just four personality types. Out of sixteen defined types.

      While everyone is, obviously, unique. What this means, to me at least. Is that the world around us, is the one that this main group of people feels most comfortable in.

      Out of the remaining twelve types. Eight personality types fall into around 25% of population. With the remaining 5-7% of population taken up by the remaining four personality types.

      So, the society we live in however well meaning or idealistic we attempt to change it. Like water, our society will always find it's true level.

      Places like Brook Farm, will be doomed from the start. - Unfortunately!

      Since the time of Marco Polo, Thomas Moore, William Morris and others. The notion of Utopia and everlasting life. Is in my opinion, an unrealistic approach to a better living. One that will be borne out by the fact, "we are all individuals". - Monty Python's Life of Brian.

      Cheers! From an INFJ personality type.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thank you for reading and commenting. Utopian communities were a part of United States culture in the 19th Century for people who thought they could create better ways to live.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I had never heard about Brook Farm. Thanks, brother for writing and open my eyes about this. Rated up of course. Happy New Year!


    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Peggy,

      Brook Farm stands out because of its association with the important literary and philosophical people of the times.The others were more associated with religious groups like the Jansenist founders of Bishop Hill in Illinois.

      As far as government goes I think those in power will tend to grab more power whenever they can.

      Thanks for commenting and voting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Don,

      Your last comment echoes my feelings. My mother always said that a benevolent dictatorship would be perfect...but also impossible to achieve especially long term because of human nature. I agree that our federal government has become way too bloated and that we need to cut it way back and return more governance to the states and local entities.

      I had heard of Brook Farm but did not know all of the details such as the people who visited there; the land eventually belonging to Abraham Lincoln, etc., etc. Fascinating hub! All the up buttons except funny. Hope you write similar hubs on other utopian communities. I loved reading this! Thanks!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Sophia, in my opinion we should get back to being a republic which was somewhat abandoned with Andrew Jackson. We have been operating more as a democracy than a republic.It is confusing because in my lifetime the terms have been used interchangeably. Whatever the case I think the adage which I believe came from Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson "That government is best that governs the least" to be true. The federal government in this country has grown far too big for the citizens to keep track of what is going on. I will vote for whoever I think will try to cut it back and return power to the states. It took a long time to get to this state of things so it will not be changed overnight.

      One wants to avoid "perfect " government because the most perfect government is a benevolent dictatorship. The problem being that one has no way of keeping it benevolent, even if it starts that way.

      I am sure you feel differently but that is why we have elections.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 6 years ago

      Daho, you're right. No system is perfect. But I think what we have can be improved upon.The Republic isn't working very well at the moment...

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Sophia, Thanks for commenting.I think Utopian ideas don't work is they go against human nature.If a perfect system it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime. The main object of a Republic is the recognition the perfection is not possible in human systems.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 6 years ago

      Daho, you're quite right. What we still have to do is work out a sustainable political system whereby we take human nature into account. 85% of people are hardwired for reward and 15% are hardwired for safety. The former is the warrior class; the latter the priest class. We need to build into the system an understanding that one man's meat is another man's poison. I believe that we have sufficient understanding of human nature and systems to be able to work out such a system. Unfortunately, most people seem to think the only systems that can exist are the one's that have already been tried. If they let go of the Utopian ideal and worked with what was probable, we could do it.


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