January 20, 2017

An example of Shaker furniture. Credit: Richard Taylor / Wikimedia

Before back-to-the-land communes, before 10-day silent meditation retreats, before anyone had even heard of Burning Man, there were people trying to create heaven on Earth. Utopias. In 19th century America, there was a flowering of utopian ideas and communities. And those ideas still have relevance today. Chris Jennings, author of Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, talks about what they were like - and their impact on us.

Three Takeaways:

  • Why did all of these utopian movements spring up in the 19th century? It was partly a reaction to industrialization. When people looked around at factory cities like Manchester, they saw that technology “wrought a new and even worse society than the one that preceded it,” according to Jennings. Utopian movements wanted to use new technology to create a better society.
  • Some of these movements were radical, even when considered from a 21st century perspective. Especially the Shakers. “They basically wanted to overturn all the building blocks of western civilization,” Jennings says. “There would be no more families, no more wages, no more private property. Men and women were totally equal… and there would be no more sex.”
  • Even though most of these communities fizzled, their ideas had a big impact on modern America. Former members went forth “and had very illustrious careers, not so much as utopians, but as what we would now call progressives,” Jennings says. “These were people who set up reformist newspapers, and tours, and preached women’s rights and abolition.”

More Reading:

utopias, Culture, Chris Jennings, Kara Miller

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