"The Wonder of the West"
August 30, 2013 10:58 AM   Subscribe

New Harmony, Indiana is a small town whose history is rooted in not one but two attempted utopian communities.

First was the Harmony Society, which put down its roots in the town in 1816. Economically successful for several years, the Harmonites practiced a mixture of Christianity and mysticism, one of its icons being the sprawling labyrinths they built wherever they went.

In 1825, they sold the entire town to the Welsh manufacturer and philanthropist Robert Owen. A socialist, Owen's philosophies were rooted in "fair exchange, just price, and the right to charity." In May of that year, the town adopted its own Constitution:

Under the preliminary constitution, members would provide their own household goods and invest their capital at interest in an enterprise that would promote independence and social equality. Members would render services to the community in exchange for credit at the town's store, but those who did not want to work could purchase credit at the store with cash payments made in advance.

The community, "a heterogenous collection of Radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in," splintered and failed just two years later.

New Harmony's legacy contains many noteworthy contributions to science and social reform. The town also was home to early feminist activity, which "increased national awareness of the issue of women’s suffrage."

Today, the opera house the Harmonites built in 1824 is still there, showing movies on weekends; the town is a haven for artists and performers; most of its residents travel either by foot or golf cart; the Atheneum, which has won a number of awards for its architecture, serves as a central hub for visitors; and the labyrinth is there, too, reconstructed near the site of the original. The town will celebrate its bicentennial in 2014.
posted by jbickers (19 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I had a girlfriend that grew up here.

Utopia, the place is not. Charming, however.
posted by deezil at 11:11 AM on August 30, 2013

I think "lazy theorist" sums me up pretty well, though semi-principled sharper might not be so far off the mark. Fun post, thanks!
posted by jcworth at 11:11 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's weird to see something on here that's so local. New Harmony is a beautiful town though.
posted by Cyclopsis Raptor at 11:11 AM on August 30, 2013

Interesting history, thanks for this!

I wonder how many places in the US are named Harmony? The first that came to mind for me was Harmony, CA, population 18. According to Wikipedia (currently lacking citations):
Harmony was founded in 1869 around several dairy ranches and a creamery. The operation changed hands repeatedly because of rivalries that led to a killing. In 1907, owners and ranchers agreed to call off their feud and called the town by its present name as a symbol of their truce.
Oddly, the unincorporated town's webpage on its own history fails to mention this.

Then there's the first Harmony Society town, in Pennsylvania, which George Washington and his guide, Christopher Gist, named Murdering Town, after being shot at by local native people.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:18 AM on August 30, 2013

On the less beautiful side of Indiana's utopian communities, just this past weekend, my friend took me on a road trip to the Indiana Dunes, and on our way, we stopped at Marktown, its homes constructed nearly a century ago modeled on an English village. What the Wikipedia article doesn't tell (see also the informative preservation society website) is that it's a scant few blocks surrounded on most sides by oil refineries, and the houses are in a state of tremendous disrepair-- I'm talking Eastern European slum disrepair. Very depressing yet fascinating place. Ruin porn.
posted by Perko at 11:28 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

The New Harmony Project in New Harmony is also a great conference. For all you playwrights-types, I think script submissions are open till October 1st.
posted by geryon at 11:30 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

My sister, now deceased, did a tremendous amount of research on New Harmony, traveled there often, and published a paper on the subject, which I'm sorry to report, I never read. She had determined that one of our great great whatever grandfathers was one of the founders of the place. I'm pretty sure he fell in the category of "unprincipled sharpers."
posted by charlesminus at 11:31 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

It also has the only remaining Working Men's Institute Library. These libraries were established in Indiana and Illinois by philanthropist William Maclure to benefit working men, and pre-date the more well-known Carnegie libraries. It's a fascinating library, with a dusty museum upstairs filled with oddities like a two-headed calf.
posted by srt19170 at 11:35 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

MetaFilter: a heterogenous collection of Radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:48 AM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Utopia, the place is not.

'No place' is utopia, only utopian
posted by ioesf at 12:23 PM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Utopia, OH
posted by sammyo at 1:18 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

This FPP is really neat rabbit hole of links that lead in several different directions. The Harmony Society stuff alone is fascinating.

What an odd cult! They practiced celibacy and didn't try to convert new members, so their numbers gradually shrank over a century and then died out. They moved three times, building a new town at each location, because of a Bible verse from Revelations. They believed in alchemy. And they worked like beavers (sharing everything communally), because they were literally trying to build a paradise on Earth for Jesus to inhabit when he returned in 1831.

Or rather, he'd spend some time there before they all moved to Jerusalem, where they'd presumably build yet another paradise. This time for keeps.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:25 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Their maze was very entertaining when I was a kid. I have always been fascinated by the strange history of that town.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:41 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is a really neat book called "The History of American Socialisms" that I use as an example when talking to really strident Tea Party folks. It was initially written/compiled after the Civil War; the author tries to discover and write about every Utopian community of every stripe in the States - both contemporary and defunct.
Noyes is his name and in the book you will find the Rapps and Harmonists as well as Shakers, Oneidians, and tons more. Some Of the communities were in full-tilt as he wrote and some of them 5-person follies that lasted a year.
I'm on my mobile or I'd share links. There should be something on Amazon at this point.
posted by Tchad at 2:43 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

And Robert Owen himself founded not one but two utopian communities -- the other being at New Lanark, a mill village near Glasgow, along the banks of the River Clyde. It's breathtakingly beautiful, situated just downstream from the Falls of Clyde (including Corra Linn, "the Clyde's most majestic daughter" according to Wordsworth). Under Owen, New Lanark provided free healthcare, childcare, and education for its workers. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a really great day-trip from Glasgow or Edinburgh.
posted by katemonster at 4:03 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Learned about this from ever-lovin' James Burke. Strangely, he didn't mention the maze...
posted by hearthpig at 4:14 PM on August 30, 2013

Tchad: There is a really neat book called "The History of American Socialisms"

Better than Amazon, it's on Gutenberg, Archive.org, and Google books (free to view and download), and there's a decent page on John Noyes on Wikipedia.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:58 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Savage Family Diggers (née American Digger) filmed an episode in New Harmony, Ind. (with actor Bill Paxton).
posted by zakur at 1:56 PM on August 31, 2013

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