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The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, [1875], at


"The name we took out of the Bible," said one of the officers of the society to me. They put the accent on the first syllable. The name occurs in the Song of Solomon, the fourth chapter and eighth verse: "Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards."

Amana in Iowa, however, is not a mountain, but an extensive plain, upon which they have built seven villages, conveniently placed so as to command the cultivated land, and to form an irregular circle within their possessions. In these villages all the people live, and they are thus divided:






Woolen-mill, saw and grist mill, and farming

East Amana



Middle Amana


Woolen-mill and farming.

Amana near the Hill


Farming, saw-mill, and tannery.

West Amana


Grist-mill and farming.

South Amana


Saw-mill and farming



Railroad station, a saw-mill, farming, and general depot.

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The villages lie about a mile and a half apart, and each has a store at which the neighboring farmers trade, and a tavern or inn for the accommodation of the general public. Each village has also its shoemakers', carpenters', tailors', and other shops, for they aim to produce and make, as far as possible, all that they use. In Middle Amana there is a printing-office, where their books are made.

The villages consist usually of one straggling street, outside of which lie the barns, and the mills, factories, and workshops. The houses are well built, of brick, stone, or wood, very plain; each with a sufficient garden, but mostly standing immediately on the street. They use no paint, believing that the wood lasts as well without. There is usually a narrow sidewalk of boards or brick; and the school-house and church are notable buildings only because of their greater size. Like the Quakers, they abhor "steeple-houses"; and their church architecture is of the plainest. The barns and other farm buildings are roomy and convenient. On the boundaries of a village are usually a few houses inhabited by hired laborers.

Each family has a house for itself; though when a young couple marry, they commonly go to live with the parents of one or the other for some years.

As you walk through a village, you notice that at irregular intervals are houses somewhat larger than the rest. These are either cook-houses or prayer-houses. The people eat in common, but for convenience' sake they are divided, so that a certain number eat together. For Amana, which has 450 people, there are fifteen such cooking and eating houses. In these the young women are employed to work under the supervision of matrons; and hither when the bell rings come those who are appointed to eat at each—the sexes sitting at separate tables, and the children also by themselves.

"Why do you separate men from women at table?" I asked.

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[paragraph continues] "To prevent silly conversation and trifling conduct," was the answer.

Food is distributed to the houses according to the number of persons eating in each. Meal and milk are brought to the doors; and each cooking-house is required to make its own butter and cheese. For those whom illness or the care of small children keeps at home, the food is placed in neat baskets; and it was a curious sight to see, when the dinner-bell rang, a number of women walking rapidly about the streets with these baskets, each nicely packed with food.

When the bell ceases ringing and all are assembled, they stand up in their places in silence for half a minute, then one says grace, and when he ends, all say, "God bless and keep us safely," and then sit down. There is but little conversation at table; the meal is eaten rapidly, but with decorum; and at its close, all stand up again, some one gives thanks, and thereupon they file out with quiet order and precision.

They live well, after the hearty German fashion, and bake excellent bread. The table is clean, but it has no cloth. The dishes are coarse but neat; and the houses, while well built, and possessing all that is absolutely essential to comfort according to the German peasants' idea, have not always carpets, and have often a bed in what New-Englanders would call the parlor; and in general are for use and not ornament.

They breakfast between six and half-past six, according to the season, have supper between six and seven, and dinner at half-past eleven. They have besides an afternoon lunch of bread and butter and coffee, and in summer a forenoon lunch of bread, to which they add beer or wine, both home-made.

They do not forbid tobacco.

Each business has its foreman; and these leaders in each village meet together every evening, to concert and arrange the labors of the following day. Thus if any department needs for an emergency an extra force, it is known, and the

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proper persons are warned. The trustees select the temporal foremen, and give to each from time to time his proper charge, appointing him also his helpers. Thus a member showed me his "ticket," by which he was appointed to the care of the cows, with the names of those who were to assist him. In the summer, and when the work requires it, a large force is turned into the fields; and the women labor with the men in the harvest. The workmen in the factories are, of course, not often changed.

The children are kept at school between the ages of six and thirteen; the sexes do not sit in separate rooms. The school opens at seven o'clock, and the children study and recite until half-past nine. From that hour until eleven, when they are dismissed for dinner, they knit gloves, wristlets, or stockings. At one o'clock school reopens, and they once more attend to lessons until three, from which hour till half-past four they knit again. The teachers are men, but they are relieved by women when the labor-school begins. Boys as well as girls are required to knit. One of the teachers said to me that this work kept them quiet, gave them habits of industry, and kept them off the streets and from rude plays.

They instruct the children in musical notation, but do not allow musical instruments. They give only the most elementary instruction, the "three Rs," but give also constant drill in the Bible and in the Catechism. "Why should we let our youth study? We need no lawyers or preachers; we have already three doctors. What they need is to live holy lives, to learn God's commandments out of the Bible, to learn submission to his will, and to love him."

The dress of the people is plain. The men wear in the winter a vest which buttons close up to the throat, coat and trousers being of the common cut.

The women and young girls wear dingy colored stuffs, mostly of the society's own make, cut in the plainest style, and often

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short gowns, in the German peasant way. All, even to the very small girls, wear their hair in a kind of black cowl or cap, which covers only the back of the head, and is tied under the chin by a black ribbon. Also all, young as well as old, wear a small dark-colored shawl or handkerchief over the shoulders, and pinned very plainly across the breast. This peculiar uniform adroitly conceals the marks of sex, and gives a singularly monotonous appearance to the women.

The sex, I believe, is not highly esteemed by these people, who think it dangerous to the Christian's peace of mind. One of their most esteemed writers advises men to "fly from intercourse with women, as a very highly dangerous magnet and magical fire." Their women work hard and dress soberly; all ornaments are forbidden. To wear the hair loose is prohibited. Great care is used to keep the sexes apart. In their evening and other meetings, women not only sit apart from men, but they leave the room before the men break ranks. Boys are allowed to play only with boys, and girls with girls. There are no places or occasions for evening amusements, where the sexes might meet. On Sunday afternoons the boys are permitted to walk in the fields; and so are the girls, but these must go in another direction. "Perhaps they meet in the course of the walk," said a member to me, "but it is not allowed." At meals and in their labors they are also separated. With all this care to hide the charms of the young women, to make them, as far as dress can do so, look old and ugly, and to keep the young men away from them, love, courtship, and marriage go on at Amana as elsewhere in the world. The young man "falls in love," and finds ways to make his passion known to its object; he no doubt enjoys all the delights of courtship, intensified by the difficulties which his prudent brethren put in his way; and he marries the object of his affection, in spite of her black hood and her sad-colored little shawl, whenever he has reached the age of twenty-four.

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For before that age he may not marry, even if his parents consent. This is a merely prudential rule. "They have few cares in life, and would marry too early for their own good—food and lodging being secured them—if there were not a rule upon the subject;" so said one of their wise men to me. Therefore, no matter how early the young people agree to marry, the wedding is deferred until the man reaches the proper age.

And when at last the wedding-day comes, it is treated with a degree of solemnity which is calculated to make it a day of terror rather than of unmitigated delight. The parents of the bride and groom meet, with two or three of the elders, at the house of the bride's father. Here, after singing and prayer, that chapter of Paul's writings is read wherein, with great plainness of speech, he describes to the Ephesians and the Christian world in general the duties of husband and wife. On this chapter the elders comment "with great thoroughness" to the young people, and "for a long time," as I was told; and after this lecture, and more singing and prayer, there is a modest supper, whereupon all retire quietly to their homes.

The strictly pious hold that marriages should be made only by consent of God, signified through the "inspired instrument."

While the married state has thus the countenance and sanction of the society and its elders, matrimony is not regarded as a meritorious act. It has in it, they say, a certain large degree of worldliness; it is not calculated to make them more, but rather less spiritually minded—so think they at Amana—and accordingly the religious standing of the young couple suffers and is lowered. In the Amana church there are three "classes," orders or grades, the highest consisting of those members who have manifested in their lives the greatest spirituality and piety. Now, if the new-married couple should have belonged for years to this highest class, their wedding would put them down into the lowest, or the "children's order,"

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for a year or two, until they had won their slow way back by deepening piety.

The civil or temporal government of the Amana communists consists of thirteen trustees, chosen annually by the male members of the society. The president of the society is chosen by the trustees.

This body manages the finances, and carries on the temporalities generally, but it acts only with the unanimous consent of its members. The trustees live in different villages, but exercise no special authority, as I understand, as individuals. The foremen and elders in each village carry on the work and keep the accounts. Each village keeps its own books and manages its own affairs; but all accounts are finally sent to the head-quarters at Amana, where they are inspected, and the balance of profit or loss is discovered. It is supposed that the labor of each village produces a profit; but whether it does or not makes no difference in the supplies of the people, who receive every thing alike, as all property is held in common. All accounts are balanced once a year, and thus the productiveness of every industry is ascertained.

The elders are a numerous body, not necessarily old men, but presumably men of deep piety and spirituality. They are named or appointed by inspiration, and preside at religious assemblies.

In every village four or five of the older and more experienced elders meet each morning to advise together on business. This council acts, as I understand, upon reports of those younger elders who are foremen and have charge of different affairs. These in turn meet for a few minutes every evening, and arrange for the next day's work.

Women are never members of these councils, nor do they hold, as far as I could discover, any temporal or spiritual authority, with the single exception of their present spiritual head, who is a woman of eighty years. Moreover, if a young

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man should marry out of the society, and his wife should desire to become a member, the husband is expelled for a year—at the end of which time both may make application to come in, if they wish.

They have contrived a very simple and ingenious plan for supplying their members with clothing and other articles aside from food. To each adult male an annual allowance is made of from forty to one hundred dollars, according as his position and labor necessitates more or less clothing. For each adult female the allowance is from twenty-five to thirty dollars, and from five to ten dollars for each child.

All that they need is kept in store in each village, and is sold to the members at cost and expenses. When any one requires an article of clothing, he goes to the store and selects the cloth, for which he is charged in a book he brings with him; he then goes to the tailor, who makes the garment, and charges him on the book an established price. If he needs shoes, or a hat, or tobacco, or a watch, every thing is in the same way charged. As I sat in one of the shops, I noticed women coming in to make purchases, often bringing children with them, and each had her little book in which due entry was made. "Whatever we do not use, is so much saved against next year; or we may give it away if we like," one explained to me; and added that during the war, when the society contributed between eighteen and twenty thousand dollars to various benevolent purposes, much of this was given by individual members out of the savings on their year's account.

Almost every man has a watch, but they keep a strict rule over vanities of apparel, and do not allow the young girls to buy or wear ear-rings or breastpins.

The young and unmarried people, if they have no parents, are divided around among the families.

They have not many labor-saving contrivances; though of course the eating in common is both economical and labor-saving.

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[paragraph continues] There is in each village a general wash-house, where the clothing of the unmarried people is washed, but each family does its own washing.

They have no libraries; and most of their reading is in the Bible and in their own "inspired" records, which, as I shall show further on, are quite voluminous. A few newspapers are taken, and each calling among them receives the journal which treats of its own specialty. In general they aim to withdraw themselves as much as possible from the world, and take little interest in public affairs. During the war they voted; "but we do not now, for we do not like the turn politics have taken"—which seemed to me a curious reason for refusing to vote.

Their members came originally from many parts of Germany and Switzerland; they have also a few "Pennsylvania Dutch." They have much trouble with applicants who desire to join the society; and receive, the secretary told me, sometimes dozens of letters in a month from persons of whom they know nothing; and not a few of whom, it seems, write, not to ask permission to join, but to say that they are coming on at once. There have been cases where a man wrote to say that he had sold all his possessions, and was then on the way, with his family, to join the association. As they claim to be not an industrial, but a religious community, they receive new members with great care, and only after thorough investigation of motives and religious faith; and these random applications are very annoying to them. Most of their new members they receive from Germany, accepting them after proper correspondence, and under the instructions of "inspiration." Where they believe them worthy they do not inquire about their means; and a fund is annually set apart by the trustees to pay the passage of poor families whom they have determined to take in.

Usually a neophyte enters on probation for two years, signing

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an obligation to labor faithfully, to conduct himself according to the society's regulations, and to demand no wages.

If at the close of his probation he appears to be a proper person, he is admitted to full membership; and if he has property, he is then expected to put this into the common stock; signing also the constitution, which provides that on leaving he shall have his contribution returned, but without interest.

There are cases, however, where a new-comer is at once admitted to full membership. This is where "inspiration" directs such breach of the general rule, on the ground that the applicant is already a fit person.

Most of their members came from the Lutheran Church; but they have also Catholics, and I believe several Jews.

They employ about two hundred hired hands, mostly in agricultural labors; and these are all Germans, many of whom have families. For these they supply houses, and give them sometimes the privilege of raising a few cattle on their land.

They are excellent farmers, and keep fine stock, which they care for with German thoroughness; stall-feeding in the winter.

The members do not work hard. One of the foremen told me that three hired hands would do as much as five or six of the members. Partly this comes no doubt from the interruption to steady labor caused by their frequent religious meetings; but I have found it generally true that the members of communistic societies take life easy.

The people are of varying degrees of intelligence; but most of them belong to the peasant class of Germany, and were originally farmers, weavers, or mechanics. They are quiet, a little stolid, and very well satisfied with their life. Here, as in other communistic societies, the brains seem to come easily to the top. The leading men with whom I conversed appeared to me to be thoroughly trained business men in the German fashion; men of education, too, and a good deal of intelligence.

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[paragraph continues] The present secretary told me that he had been during all his early life a merchant in Germany; and he had the grave and somewhat precise air of an honest German merchant of the old style—prudent, with a heavy sense of responsibility, a little rigid, and yet kindly.

At the little inn I talked with a number of the rank and file, and noticed in them great satisfaction with their method of life. They were, on the surface, the commoner kind of German laborers; but they had evidently thought pretty thoroughly upon the subject of communal living; and knew how to display to me what appeared to them its advantages in their society: the absolute equality of all men—"as God made us;" the security for their families; the abundance of food; and the independence of a master.

It seems to me that these advantages are dearer to the Germans than to almost any other nation, and hence they work more harmoniously in communistic experiments. I think I noticed at Amana, and elsewhere among the German communistic societies, a satisfaction in their lives, a pride in the equality which the communal system secures, and also in the conscious surrender of the individual will to the general good, which is not so clearly and satisfactorily felt among other nationalities. Moreover, the German peasant is fortunate in his tastes, which are frugal and well fitted for community living. He has not a great sense of or desire for beauty of surroundings; he likes substantial living, but cares nothing for elegance. His comforts are not, like the American's, of a costly kind.

I think, too, that his lower passions are more easily regulated or controlled, and certainly he is more easily contented to remain in one place. The innkeeper, a little to my surprise, when by chance I told him that I had spent a winter on the Sandwich Islands, asked me with the keenest delight and curiosity about the trees, the climate, and the life there; and wanted to know if I had seen the place where Captain Cook,

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[paragraph continues] "the great circumnavigator of the world," was slain. He returned to the subject again and again, and evidently looked upon me as a prodigiously interesting person, because I had been fortunate enough to see what to him was classic ground. An American would not have felt one half this man's interest; but he would probably have dreamed of making the same journey some day. My kindly host sat serenely in his place, and was not moved by a single wandering thought.

They forbid all amusements—all cards and games whatever, and all musical instruments; "one might have a flute, but nothing more." Also they regard photographs and pictures of all kinds as tending to idol-worship, and therefore not to be allowed.

They have made very substantial improvements upon their property; among other things, in order to secure a sufficient water-power, they dug a canal six miles long, and from five to ten feet deep, leading a large body of water through Amana. On this canal they keep a steam-scow to dredge it out annually.

As a precaution against fire, in Amana there is a little tower upon a house in the middle of the village, where two men keep watch all night.

They buy much wool from the neighboring farmers; and have a high reputation for integrity and simple plain-dealing among their neighbors. A farmer told me that it was not easy to cheat them; and that they never dealt the second time with a man who had in any way wronged them; but that they paid a fair price for all they bought, and always paid cash.

In their woolen factories they make cloth enough for their own wants and to supply the demand of the country about them. Flannels and yarn, as well as woolen gloves and stockings, they export, sending some of these products as far as New York. The gloves and stockings are made not only by the children, but by the women during the winter months, when they are otherwise unemployed.

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At present they own about 3000 sheep, 1500 head of cattle, 200 horses, and 2500 hogs.

The society has no debt, and has a considerable fund at interest.

They lose very few of their young people. Some who leave them return after a few years in the world. Plain and dull as the life is, it appears to satisfy the youth they train up; and no doubt it has its rewards in its regularity, peacefulness, security against want, and freedom from dependence on a master.

It struck me as odd that in cases of illness they use chiefly homeopathic treatment. The people live to a hale old age. They had among the members, in March, 1874, a woman aged ninety-seven, and a number of persons over eighty.

They are non-resistants; but during the late war paid for substitutes in the army. "But we did wrongly there," said one to me; "it is not right to take part in wars even in this way."

To sum up: the people of Amana appeared to me a remarkably quiet, industrious, and contented population; honest, of good repute among their neighbors, very kindly, and with religion so thoroughly and largely made a part of their lives that they may be called a religious people.

Next: IV.—Religion and Literature.