Sharing Benches: Acts of Communalism

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Sharing benches means sharing the same material support; also sitting at the same level. In an act of communalism, leaders or moderators, if present, sit with the others on the benches; they do not address the group from outside.
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The “Utopian Benches” exhibit on display at the Arcadia University Art Gallery in 2011.
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“We Sit Together” by Francis Cape proposes that material culture reflects social structure, and that the bench as shared seating reflects a general sharing of values.

We Sit Together (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013) by Francis Cape presents twenty-one beautifully reconstructed benches drawn from twelve utopian communities, both secular and religious, active from 1732 to the present. Cape investigates how the structure and values of each community found expression in their benches. This selection from the introduction discusses historic acts of communalism.

Twenty benches are gathered in the middle of a room. Each is built from poplar and finished in the same rubbed linseed oil. No two are the same. This is the sculpture Utopian Benches. I made the sculpture as a way of thinking—and talking—about communalism as both a historic and a contemporary alternative to individualism. The definition of communalism I use here is the community of goods. Broader definitions such as that suggested by Timothy Miller do not make as clear a distinction from materialist individualism. Sharing a bench means sharing the same material support; also sitting at the same level. When gathered in a room for exhibition, the benches are used for public meetings and conversations on subjects chosen by those who have chosen to come. Leaders or moderators, if present, sit with the others on the benches; they do not address the group from outside.

I made the benches using measured drawings taken from original benches that were, for the most part, made for and/or used by communal societies. Each bench is a facsimile of one used and, in some cases, currently in use by a communal society. The originals are in a variety of woods and finishes. I chose to make them all in poplar sourced locally near my studio, as using locally available lumber is what they did. The linseed oil finish is characteristic of early Shaker furniture. My research took me from historic sites and museum villages to contemporary communes, both secular and religious.

The focus of the work is the nineteenth-century American intentional communities, particularly those with a craft tradition, most famously the Shakers, but also the Community of True Inspiration in Amana, the Harmony Society, and the Society of Separatists at Zoar, Ohio. The earliest benches are from Ephrata Cloister, which was established in 1732, and is the oldest American communal society for which we have extant buildings and artifacts, now in the care of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The newest bench was made sometime in the last ten years at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, which is also in southeast Pennsylvania and less than fifty miles from Ephrata.

This newest bench stands in Rose Hall, which is the meetinghouse at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills. It is built from oak, which was likely sourced from the community’s woodlands. Though built in living memory, the name of the individual who made it is already lost; that this could have happened is owed to the community’s dependence on a continuing rotation of short-term coworkers. The story of the bench reflects the structure of the community. At Ephrata Cloister, the Feast Hall bench—which probably also stood in the Saal, the community meeting house, in an upstairs room where they held Love Feasts—will also have been built from local lumber. The name of that maker is lost in time. That the name of neither maker was recorded is characteristic of the anonymity of traditional craft practice. This is not to say that the craftsmen and women were not respected by their peers, but that for craft, as for communalism, it is the contribution rather than the contributor that is celebrated.

The benches, as shared seating, represent community. As examples of craftsmanship, they propose a reconsideration of value. The intentional association of craft with resistance to industrial practice—and in our times to mass consumption—dates to the nineteenth century with William Morris and the origins of the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain. Morris, who is best known for his naturalistic textile and wallpaper designs, also ran a furniture shop whose products followed simple English rural vernacular traditions, in sharp contrast to the opulent output of conventional designers of the day. He was, moreover, an active socialist who spoke regularly to workingmen’s groups and advocated the overthrow of the social and political order of his time: an order that has changed little in the Western world in the ensuing years. He had been a poet before he took up designing for the material world, and he described his dream of a new life in his utopian novel News from Nowhere. Morris and his utopian vision, became the model for the Arts and Crafts community founded at Rose Valley outside Philadelphia (fifty miles from Ephrata Cloister, in the opposite direction from the Camphill Village).

We Sit Together proposes not such deliberate politicization of craft (except in the case of Rose Valley) but that material culture reflects social structure, and that the bench as shared seating reflects a general sharing of values, but also that the design and use of a bench in a communal society reflects—to some degree, at least—the structure and values of that particular community. The description of each community is here told, so far as possible, through its bench or benches. While adequate to their purpose, such descriptions are not exhaustive and the reader is referred to the bibliography for fuller accounts. Communities are ordered chronologically according to the date they were established in North America. Accompanying each community description are measured drawings and photographs of each bench. If so moved, the reader will be able to remake a bench for themselves, and perhaps even a commune.

In America the history of resistance to capitalist-driven individualism is older than either William Morris or Karl Marx. It is embedded in those groups once referred to by their American contemporaries as “communisms” and “socialisms.” The high point for American communitarianism is commonly regarded to be the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Many communal societies from that time, along with some both earlier and later, share similar histories and characteristics.

Historically, they left Europe to escape religious persecution, often as German Pietists denounced by the dominant Lutheran church, and consequently were attracted to the religious freedom offered by William Penn. Many were helped along their way by the Quakers in Philadelphia. While a few had adopted communal life in Europe before emigrating, most chose it as a way to better handle the difficulties and challenges of their new world. In particular, the well-being—and indeed, survival—of the elderly, the infirm, and the poor was given as a reason for throwing their lot together. Many, such as the Hutterites and the Bruderhof, who practiced communalism in Europe, as well as some of those who adopted it in the New World (the Separatists of Zoar among them), specifically name the community of goods in the early Christian Apostolic church as the model for their own practice. In the case of the Hutterites, the sharing of possessions in emulation of that earlier example is integral to their faith: To leave the community is to leave the shelter of the church.

Community of property in almost all societies meant individual property was limited to a few personal items. Members were provided with everything they needed, from home and food, to health care and education. They usually lived in communal houses, but with private rooms or suites. In return they worked at tasks often appointed by community leaders, and even if skilled in a particular trade, would take up any appointed task as season or need demanded. Contemporary accounts tell of the pleasures of such communal working groups that were called bees at Oneida and parties by Christiana Knoedler, in her writings on the Harmony Society. Many did not see work as drudgery, but took pride in what they did, resulting in craft legacies valued to this day.

New members were often required to sign contracts giving over all their worldly possessions to the community in return for a lifetime of support. Sometimes a record was kept of what they had brought with them, and if they subsequently left, it would be returned, though without interest. Several societies suffered lawsuits from disgruntled former communards who wanted recompense for the labor they had performed. Membership contracts were designed to protect communities from such suits. Some had written constitutions, and almost all were incorporated under state law as communal societies. In the late 1970s, Twin Oaks won a court case allowing them to be taxed under a federal law established over a century earlier for the Shakers.

Celibacy, for which the Shakers are well known, was rarely absolute in other communities. It was adopted by the Harmony Society two or three years after their incorporation, and though it became the custom for the majority, some marriages and births were recorded. The Society of True Inspiration in Amana also thought it pleasing to the Lord, but did not require it. The Separatists of Zoar practiced it for a few hard years as they struggled to establish themselves on their new land. As to promiscuity: the sixties commune, Twin Oaks, contrary to popular myth, is not a hotbed of free love, though they do not particularly revere conventional marriage. It was the outwardly bourgeois Oneida Perfectionists who, in the latter part of the nineteenth century—a period generally dominated by conventional mores—enjoyed sexual freedom in an arrangement they called “complex marriage.”

Throughout their history, communication, aid, and the exchange of ideas and even members between communities has been common. In the 1780s Matthias Hofer fell out with his Hutterite community in Russia and traveled to America to join Ephrata Cloister. One hundred years later the Tripp colony of Hutterites in South Dakota, facing financial difficulties, appealed to the Community of True Inspiration in Amana for assistance, which they received. When it became clear they still could not manage, they sold up and moved to Pennsylvania to settle on land given to them by the Harmony Society. It has been suggested the Harmonists, faced with their own crisis in the form of dwindling membership, hoped to make these Hutterites their heirs.

Over time the single largest common cause for the demise of communal societies has been the attraction of a younger generation to the pursuit of individual material wealth offered by the larger world. The Amana Inspirationists, who saw it happening, chose to abandon communal living rather than watch their children leave. Like the Oneida Perfectionists, they divided the community’s property between themselves, which, in the case of their successful businesses, took the form of stock. Descendants of both, some of whom still live in former community housing, continue to receive income from the Amana Society (which owned Amana Refrigeration) and Oneida Limited (the maker of silverware), respectively. Celibacy, despite what one might expect, did not on its own close communities. The Shakers, who were always entirely celibate, are still active, if only just, with three full members living together over two hundred years after communal living was established at Sabbathday Lake in Maine in 1783 (nine years after Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, landed in New York from England). By comparison, the Amana Inspirationists lasted seventy-seven years, and the Oneida Perfectionists just thirty-three. For the Harmony Society, who encouraged—but did not mandate—celibacy, it was their reluctance in later years to accept new members, their loss of religious and communal focus in favor of business success, and the desertion of a third of their members (particularly the young) following a leadership challenge, that were as much to blame for the society’s demise as celibacy itself. Secular contemporary communities, including both Twin Oaks and Camphill Village Kimberton Hills described here, manage with a high turnover of short-term members alongside their longer-term and lifetime communards.

In the end, those groups that succeeded in surviving the first difficult years often flourished and did better than their individualist neighbors—often much to the latters’ chagrin. Indeed in the mid-twentieth century the Hutterites in one Canadian province were legally barred from buying more land because their success in agriculture far outstripped the achievements of neighboring individual family farms. Contemporary societies, of which there are four in this book, are so far surviving and continuing successfully; the Hutterites particularly so. New communities continue to be formed, and it is possible that current disgust with money and politics will lead—or perhaps is already leading—to a new communal movement.

Reprinted with permission from We Sit Together by Francis Cape and published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2013.

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