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The Brook Farm Community

Brook Farm Community
George Ripley

map showing the location of Brook Farm


The Brook Farm Community, or Brooks Farm Community, had its origin in the early 1840's against a background of an idealisation of co-operative communal living.

George Ripley was a graduate of Harvard and an Unitarian minister. An increasing knowledge of European writers together with a dissatisfaction with many aspects of contemporary society, however, gradually widened the focus of his interest such that social reform joined theology in his ongoing sphere of concern.

In the summer of 1840 Ripley, and his wife Sophia Dana Ripley, spent several weeks on the Ellis Farm, West Roxbury, some nine miles from Boston. Ripley enjoyed being out in the Massachussets countryside often spending hours relaxing in the open air immersed in the poetry of Rabbie Burns. He became determined to attempt the foundation of an experiment in communal living. Whilst this project was the product, in a general way, of the speculations and example of Owen and Fourier it was not particularly intended to be socialistic in nature. In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson of November 1840 concerning plans for organising a socially utopian community to be called Brook Farm Ripley wrote:-
"Our objects as you know, are to insure a more natural union between between intellectual and manual labor ... guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry ... thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions."

He accordingly gave up his pastorate, preached a farewell sermon to his congregation on March 28 1841, and in early April he and his wife and about a dozen friends established a "Practical Institute of Agriculture and Education" at the Ellis "Brook" Farm.

The Institute was a established as a joint-stock company. There were twenty four shares issued each costing five hundred dollars on which interest was payable at five per cent, each share was secured against the assets of the enterprise, each share brought with it voting rights and an entitlement for a child to be educated in the projected educational facilities. Shareholders could expect that they could be reimbursed for their shares at three months notice.

The farm, extending to some one hundred and seventy five acres, was bought some months later from Charles and Maria Ellis, as detailed in the deeds on October 11, 1841. Although it says nothing about it in the deeds, another strip of property was also purchased, called the "Keith Lot," which consisted of twenty-two acres. The trustees George Ripley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dana, and William Allen arranged several mortgages amounting to some $11,000 upon the newly acquired property.

In the early days of the project the farm was often referred to as Ripley's farm due to his central role as initiator.

As the Brook Farm Community became established it proved to be a place where intellectual life was stimulating. Resident members of the community included such notables as Nathaniel Hawthorne, John S. Dwight, Charles A. Dana, and Isaac Hecker, whilst there were also eminent visitors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, W. E. Channing, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Horace Greeley, and Orestes Brownson.

Fourierism was introduced to the American public in 1840 when a New Yorker named Albert Brisbane published a compendium of Fourier's writings entitled The Social Destiny of Man. Brisbane also reached a wide audience through the column in The New York Tribune that the editor, Horace Greely, had made available.

Fourier believed that the cause of conflict and suffering was the perversion of natural human goodness by faulty social organization. He advocated a solution of small planned communes, and he called then phalansteries. He devised a blueprint precisely indicating the size, layout, and industrial organization of each community or "phalanx." Organized as both producers' and consumers' cooperatives, the communities would escalate economically and fulfill all man's passions. The result was to create a situation where "Attractive Industry" would contribute to the rise of social harmony and unimaginable bliss.

Set on arable cropping land, the "Central House" of each Phlanx (the phalanstère) had three key structures: an administrative centre, flanked by a wing which comprised both working and recreational areas (a ballroom was indispensable): a residential centre: and, at the back of the building, a parade ground to celebrate the harvest, to honour the hardest workers and ridicule the less motivated. The work of the community was to be a mixture of rural and industrial pursuits in conformity with Fourier's vision of unity and his antagonism towards the divisions between town and country which were emerging under capitalism.

The membership of the phalanstery was to be tightly controlled with a maximum of 1620 people who would come from all strata of society.

In March of 1842 Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on "Fourierism and Socialists" appeared in "The Dial" the journal of New England Transcendentalism. As variously publicised, (including through American Fourierism's own journal "The Phlanx") Fourierist Associationism became widely discussed and eventually laid the ideological foundation for many of the twenty three or so utopian communities that were established across the United States in the nineteenth century.

Albert Brisbane frequently visited Brook Farm in visits that lasted several days and eventually based himself there for several months continuously whilst translating the works of Fourier. During these times he enthusiastically advocated Fourierism holding that it offered to alleviate social problems and to produce great social harmony.

Brisbane successfully convinced George Ripley, as well as the other directors, that a conversion to Fourierism could bring much need capital and prosperity to their community.

The adoption of the principles of Fourier, with some modifications, by the Brook Farm Community in 1844 seems to have put an end to some of the more Idyllic features of life there. There was a high degree of organisational complexity associated with the Fourier model. Matters were also complicted by a system of time keeping that had been introduced in deference to some people's belief that others were slacking.

Brook Farm officially declared itself a Fourierist Phalanx in 1845. Ripley then established The Harbinger, 1845-49, a periodical devoted to the exposition of Associationist theory. That being said Ripley remained committed to the project continuing to have a religious dimension.

In an article in The Harbinger Ripley wrote of "the systematic organisation of labor, to make it more efficient, productive, and attractive; in this way to provide for the abundant gratification of all the intellectual, moral, and physical wants of every member of the Association; and thus to extirpate the dreadful inequalities of external condition, which now make many aspects of society so hideous; and to put all in possession of the means of leading a wise, serene and beautiful life in accordance with the eternal laws of God and the highest aspirations of their own nature."

During its early years of life the efforts of the Brook Farm Community added several more houses, work rooms, and dormitories, to complement the original substantial farmhouse on the property. This original Ellis farmhouse, known to members as "The Hive" served as a community house where meals were taken in common and some social assembly took place. The other main buildings were known as "The Eyrie", "The Pilgrim House" and "Cottage." An extensive, (sixty feet by forty feet), two-storey workshop was also constructed as was a substantial greenhouse.
George Ripley's valuable library, which included many rare English, German, and French titles as well as Indian and Chinese works in translation, was available to the community before and after the Ripley's taking up residence in the newly constructed Eyrie.

Whilst the Brook Farm schools, (infant, primary, agricultural and college preparatory), were a financial success the community's agricultural efforts were not. The activities of a perhaps over-large group of often inexperienced farmers on a rather sandy soil yielded an insufficient financial return. There were profitable businesses in sash and blind making and in printing. Not all such industrial efforts engaged in by many other members of the community brought a positive financial return however.

During the winter of 1844-45 foodstuffs, clothing, and firing were somewhat rationed, or as it was put "retrenched", due to a lack of funds. Those whose general health was good were encouraged not to expect to be served with meat, tea, butter or sugar but there were concessions made for others.

The construction, on an ambitious scale, of a new Fourierist central house, or unitary building, to be known as the Phalanstery, was started in the summer of 1844. All the public rooms were to be in this one hundred and seventy five feet long by forty feet wide (55 x 12 Metre) wooden building of three storeys which was in the middle of the Farm. It was to contain parlors, reading rooms, reception rooms, a general assembly hall, dining rooms capable of seating over 300 people, and a kitchen with attached bakery carefully planned for common use.

During the winter of 1845-46 there were a number of outbreaks of illness, including several cases of smallpox. Foodstuffs, clothing, and firing were again "retrenched" as the finances of the Association remained in difficulty. There was some disillusionment that Mr. Brisbane and the central organisation of Fourierism in America did not forward supportive funding that seemed to have been offered to the Brook Farm Association. In point of fact the central organisation had come to the conclusion that the Brook Farm Association must inevitably fail because it was operating on too small a scale and was attempting to raise $100,000 to fund a yet more ambitiously planned new Association elsewhere. Those in charge of the finances of Brook Farm looked forward to being able to considerably expand educational activity, with an associated boost in incomes, when the Phalanastery was completed.

Progress on the Phalanstery was slow however, work on it was abandoned for the winter, and, before it was finished the Phalanstery burned to the ground on March 3, 1846. Some seven thousand dollars had already been spent, much of this money having been raised through interest bearing loans, and the building was uninsured. To put this in perspective it should be realised that the total capitalisation of the Brook Farm project was about thirty thousand dollars. This serious loss created severe financial trouble for the Brook Farm Association.

There were plans mooted to discontinue activities in manufacturing and agriculture that were not financially self-supporting. Such a course would probably have involved a drastic cut back in community membership to perhaps twenty persons. Although many had found their time spent at Brook Farm to have been very personally worthwhile the trustees reluctantly accepted that the Association's assets would have to be completely disposed of.

The Ripley family, who had been the mainstays of the project, in both finances and motivating energies, faced financial ruin. George Ripley eventually regained a modest prosperity through working as a literary critic for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune and then became quite wealthy through the authorship, and publication, of an Encyclopaedia.

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