Brook Farm-Transcendentalist Utopian history
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 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 sage.org 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.
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 Sage.org article on The Brook Farm Community
- Utopian Communities History in America, the New Eden In Society: Puritans, Swedish Immigrants,
People have come to America seeking a renewal of the garden of eden. Several communities have tried to create a perfect society but few laasted very long.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson 19th Century American Philosopher, Lecturer, Writer, Poet and Why His Religious
Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the most important american philospher of the 19th Century.His religious views were radical for his day, although not so much now.
© 2011 Don A. Hoglund