Brook Farm

Brook Farm
Brook Farm

Brook Farm, a celebrated nineteenth-century New England utopian community, was founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley and other progressive, Transcendentalist Unitarians, to be, in Ripley’s words, a new Jerusalem, the “city of God, anew.” From its founding in 1841 until it went bankrupt in 1847, Brook Farm influenced many of the social reform movements of its day: abolitionism, associationalism, the workingmen’s movement, and the women’s rights movement. It represented both a test of Transcendentalist dreams and a challenge to Transcendentalist individualism.

Ripley conceived the idea of founding a new community in 1840, when he and his friend Theodore Parker attended the Christian Union Convention in Groton, Massachusetts. The convention had been organized by Second Adventists and “Come-Outers”—people who had “come out” of their established churches to “protest against all creeds and sects.” There were delegates from other proposed utopian communities, including Adin Ballou, who soon organized the Hopedale Community; William Lloyd Garrison, whose followers established the anti-slavery Northampton Association; and Bronson Alcott, who later founded Fruitlands.

The convention had a revolutionary effect on Ripley. He began discussing plans for a new community with friends in the Transcendentalist Club. He decided to leave his pulpit on Purchase Street in Boston for a new ministry of social worship: “for the purpose of Christianity is to redeem society as well as the individual from sin.” For him, this entailed a community dedicated to the abolition of slavery, equal educational and economic opportunities for all, and an end to wage slavery and domestic servitude.

As much as the other Transcendentalists approved Ripley’s vision of heaven on earth, they differed as to whether human progress was best made through individuals or in community. After much soul searching, individualists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller declined to join the community. While they gave moral support to Brook Farm, they believed that society was best transformed one heart at a time. After a test visit to Brook Farm in 1841, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “As for these communities, I think I had rather keep a bachelor’s room in Hell than go to board in Heaven.”

In “The West Roxbury Association at Brook Farm” ownership was to be held jointly by members who had purchased stock. While some of the initial capital was raised this way, many members never actually paid, and their investments existed only on paper. Most of the starting capital came from friends like George Russell and Francis Shaw, neighbors of Parker and friends of many Brook Farmers. Even Parker’s mother-in-law invested. All told, Brook Farm was launched at a cost of about eleven thousand dollars, almost all of which was borrowed, re-payable at a guaranteed return of five percent interest.

Ripley raised enough money from the sale of stock in his joint-proprietorship community to purchase two hundred acres of meadow, pastures, and woods adjoining the Charles River in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The soil was sandy and gravelly, not suitable for planting, but had been successful as a dairy farm. There was a large farmhouse, soon to be christened “the Hive” because it would be the center of early Brook Farm life.

With the confidence and zeal of someone with absolutely no experience of farming, Ripley plunged himself into the study of agriculture. He made detailed plans for the agricultural Garden of Eden he was sure that Brook Farm would become. He put aside his customary literature and became a devoted reader of the New England Farmer and other agricultural periodicals. He would need this information as only one member of the community had any experience farming.

Personal “affinity” determined the allotment of work around the farm. Anyone who showed interest in milking cows would do that. Those who hated milking could do something else. Variety was also an important part of the work-plan: people regularly changed jobs to avoid boredom. The organizers tried to make the jobs as interesting as possible. For example, George Ripley’s wife, Sophia Willard Dana Ripley, had reading stands attached to the ironing boards so that people could read as they ironed.

One of the things that made drudgery palatable was equal compensation. A child milking a cow was paid the same hourly rate as a former Harvard professor of Classics teaching in the school. At a time when most were given little choice in the type or circumstance of their labor, and were frequently underpaid, Brook Farm was revolutionary. Neither social class, nor age, nor gender determined a member’s community status or remuneration.

Brook Farm came close to establishing gender equality, largely breaking the link between women and housekeeping. This was accomplished, however, only because there were no households to keep. Most members were single and young. Men made up sixty percent of the community. Unmarried women enjoyed the same freedoms at Brook Farm that single women did in American society in general. There were few married couples and no provision for couples who had children out of infancy. The lack of family units would have made Brook Farm hard to sustain in the long run. The residents were essentially transients, like students in a college, who departed after a short time to begin the next, and sometimes more domestic, phase of their lives.

Most members, happy with the work allocation, found their new lives interesting and energizing. John Van Der Zee Sears, a boarder at the Brook Farm school for most of his childhood, recounts in his memoirs that, “Men and women, boys and girls, drawn together in groups by special likings for the work to be done, made labor not only light but really pleasant.” Some residents, however, became discontented as soon as the novelty wore off. Annie Salisbury, an aspiring writer who had come to Brook Farm to free herself of materialism and seek spiritual enrichment, wrote in her diary in 1841, “I think this present life gives me an antipathy to pen and ink. In the midst of toil, or after a hard days work, my soul obstinately refuses to be burned out on paper. It is my opinion that a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung heap, just as well as under a pile of money.”

Those who came from non-laboring classes often could not continue past the phase of “idealistic tourism.” For Nathanial Hawthorne, who had initially loved milking and working with Ripley, the charm quickly passed. He was especially disheartened by the ubiquitous mounds of manure, to which Ripley invariably referred as the “gold mine.” Hawthorne confided to his fiancée that he “never suspected that farming was so hard,” and wished to be rescued from it “before my soul is utterly buried in a dungheap.” He soon left. The majority of Brook Farmers thought the “idealistic tourists” lacked community spirit. Sears remembers that “The lovers of solitude (or, it is implied, material comfort), self-centered egoists and searchers into the mysteries of their own souls—Emerson, Hawthorne, Hecker and Margaret Fuller were out of place in this united association where each person wanted, first of all, to be in harmony with the common mind.”

Months of hard work produced little income. The school did well, but could not pay the expenses of the Farm, much less the cost of the aggressive building projects. The community built another building, the Nest, followed by three more: the Eyrie, the Cottage and the Pilgrim House. In order to do this, Brook Farm took on six thousand dollars of new debt, bringing its total debt to almost fifteen thousand dollars—a staggering amount of debt for a community with little prospect of any reliable income.

By 1842 there were over seventy people living at Brook Farm. Most of the new residents never fulfilled their investment pledges. The association bore the cost of housing and boarding them without any additional capital. It was not in the nature of the visionaries and idealists who made up the community to be strict with prospective members or to be thrifty with the budget. Most were opposed to the idea of profit and disdained money and finance. This attitude, more than anything else, was responsible for the failure of Brook Farm to thrive.

Ripley could not afford to return the investment of the departed Hawthorne. He was having difficulty figuring out how anything was going to be paid for, even foodstuffs. The community had no shortage of ministers and littérateurs, but not a single shoemaker, carpenter, or blacksmith. Ripley realized that the “purely democratic, Christian principles on which he had established the community wouldn’t provide even a single meal for seventy Brook Farmers living on a dairy farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.”

The school was Brook Farm’s one economic bright spot. It had become one of the finest boarding schools in New England, with a teaching staff composed entirely of graduates of Harvard and Radcliffe. Its curriculum was a blend of the best classical education of the time and new methods. Students included Fuller’s younger brother, Emerson’s nephew, Orestes Brownson’s son, Parker’s ward and Francis Shaw’s son, Robert Gould Shaw, who later led the 54th Massachusetts (Black) Infantry in the Civil War. The school was so well respected that Harvard recommended it to students preparing for its college.

As financial pressure mounted, another form of utopian organization, Fourierism, tempted Ripley. France’s Charles Fourier (1772-1837) had a vision of meticulously planned cooperative communities called “phalanxes,” in which social and commercial competition would be eliminated and which would provide a fulfilling existence for all its people. He believed that, in his system, the human predisposition toward community-mindedness would invariably, and without violence, master impulses toward individualism. Fourierism was brought to America by Albert Brisbane, whose manifesto, Social Destiny of Man, 1840, excited Transcendentalists and other reformers. During 1843-44 Ripley and his lieutenant at Brook Farm, Charles Dana, attended Fourierist meetings and came to believe that participation in the associationalist movement would provide Brook Farm with new members and financial support. Changes were gradually made in the community to increase financial responsibility and to bring it more in line with Fourierist principles.

In early 1844, not without opposition, the elected officers of Brook Farm voted to reorganize as a Fourierist phalanx. This included new bureaucratic procedures, described by a lexicon of “scientific” terms like “rigid inquisition,” “proper authorities,” and “bureau of internal affairs.” All workers were organized into groups and series. In the domestic group, for example, the series included waiting, ironing, washing, and cooking. This level of formality departed greatly from Ripley’s initial vision. These changes, however, failed to address Brook Farm’s most serious challenge: lack of income.

With this reorganization the community parted company with the individualistic wing of Transcendentalism. Some of the original settlers left. The new residents who took their places came from the workingmen’s and Fourierist movements, not from Boston Unitarian circles. Many were skilled or semi-skilled craftspeople: printers, carpenters, mechanics, and a pewterer. On a visit to Brook Farm, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley reported that George and Sophia Ripley, “once the centre about which persons united by common intellectual and moral sympathies revolved,” were now “lost in a crowd of carpenters, shoemakers and the like.”

Ripley believed that tradespeople were as capable as any of intellectual or spiritual accomplishment. Children from “lower” classes did as well at the Brook Farm school as the children of privileged Boston. The working-class adults took part in entertainments, concerts, and debates. The amount of discussion did not decline as the Transcendentalists left and the workingmen came in. Only the topics shifted. Ripley believed that there was a natural compatibility between Fourierism and the original vision of Brook Farm as expressed in the initial written goals of the community:

To insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to 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; so to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and 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 pressure of our competitive institutions.

Ripley became ever more active in the Fourierist movement. To showcase Brook Farm as a model phalanx, and to attract desperately needed financial support from investors interested in associationalism, in 1845 he began publishing a new official Fourierist periodical, The Harbinger. Although two previous Fourierist magazines had gone out of business for lack of subscribers, Ripley nevertheless hoped that by putting Brook Farm’s several printers to work the community press might make money.

Confident that Brook Farm’s financial worries were soon to be over, the association embarked on yet another construction project. They decided to erect a giant building, the Phalanstery, to house the entire community of over 100 people. This was to be a “central community house, centralizing all the public rooms: the parlors, reading room, reception rooms, general assembly hall, dining room capable of seating over three hundred people, kitchen, and bakery.” The older buildings were to be converted to a school and workshops. The community also bought a steam engine to replace their horse mills. The installation of the steam engine, which coincided with the official transition to a Fourierist phalanx, signaled that Brook Farm had broken from Ripley’s original vision of a pastoral community.

The associationalist movement faced resistance from Americans who felt threatened by the central tenets of Fourierism: an end to capitalism, equal rights for all, and the abolition of slavery and class distinctions. Prominent advocates of associationalism, like Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, were subject to vicious attack. Critics frequently charged the movement with sexual promiscuity, or “free love.” While Fourier himself was a proponent of free and open sexual relationships, the American communities, most of them founded on religious principles, were almost uniformly “proper.” The people at Brook Farm endorsed marriage and observed a strict code of sexual conduct. The charges, unjust as they were, took their toll on Brook Farm’s boarding school, the primary source of income. Parents living outside the community, reading and hearing about “depravity,” withdrew their children.

As Brook Farm’s financial situation worsened and meals became more spartan, even the most committed of Farmers started to express discontent. In response to the stress, a number of Brook Farmers began a religious revival, a spiritual return to the original vision. In the autumn of 1845 William Ellery Channing’s nephew, William Henry Channing, who spent much time at Brook Farm, instituted outdoor Sunday services at “Pulpit Rock.” These services, which had never previously been an official part of life at Brook Farm, attracted the Unitarian residents who had been attending Theodore Parker’s, Orestes Brownson’s, or James Freeman Clarke’s churches. Many of the newer associates felt left out, insulted, and divided from the others because they did not share the same religious beliefs.

Before this dissension could turn into an open fight, something worse happened. In late 1845 a Brook Farm boy, visiting his aunt and uncle in Boston, caught smallpox. Before his symptoms appeared he brought the infection home, exposing the whole community. Nearly one third of residents had to be quarantined. There was dissension over the implementation of the quarantine. All work at the Farm stopped, save caring for the sick. Parker, Ripley’s oldest and most trusted friend, withdrew his ward from the school. Resident John Allen estimated that, in lost tuition and damage to industry, the disease cost the community at least two or three thousand dollars.

Before the end of the year Hawthorne filed a lawsuit against Ripley, seeking to recover his investment. Ripley conceded the truth of Hawthorne’s claim, but there was no money to pay him. It is unlikely that Hawthorne was ever repaid. Before the end of the year Albert Brisbane informed Ripley that he could not expect any money from the philanthropists who promoted the Fourierist cause. Convinced that Brook Farm was a nearly defunct, they were investing instead in the North American Phalanx in Red Bank, New Jersey. “We have reached,” said Brook Farm member John Sullivan Dwight, “our severest crisis.”

Although construction work on the Phalanstery had been long dormant due to lack of funds, in 1846 the association decided to devote its remaining resources to its completion. The Farmers felt that if they could complete the impressive structure, it might give them a psychological fresh start. And such tangible evidence of institutional health might attract new investors and members. To celebrate resumption of construction the community threw one of its famous parties. While they were dancing, the new structure caught fire and burned to the ground. Because it was not yet insured, the Phalanstery was a complete loss.

The fire broke even Ripley’s resilient spirit. Although he still lived on the Farm, he retreated into the world of ideas and transferred his energy to the activities of the New England Fourier Society and other associationalist organizations. After the fire there were about sixty-five people remaining in the community. A few months later there were only thirty, and virtually all of the students were gone. Brook Farm could not recover.

The unofficial “funeral” of Brook Farm took place late in 1846. Several hundred volumes of the library which Ripley had brought with him to Brook Farm—one of the finest personal collections in the United States—were sold at auction in Boston. Ripley is reported to have remarked to a friend at the time that “I can now understand how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral.” Bankruptcy proceedings were completed in 1847. For several years the property was a West Roxbury almshouse. During the Civil War the State of Massachusetts used the land as a training camp for Union soldiers.

Although it passed away with little more than a whimper, Brook Farm cannot be considered a failure. It profoundly affected the lives of almost everyone it touched: the residents, the children educated there, and the individualistic supporters. Hawthorne based the satiric novel, The Blithesdale Romance, 1852, on his experience there. Brook Farm left an indelible mark on American history, and remains a model for intentional communities throughout the world. As Dana put it: “In the first place we have abolished domestic servitude. In the second place we have secured thorough education for all. And in the third place we have established justice to the laborer, and ennobled industry.” The West Roxbury Association at Brook Farm did not accomplish all of these things perfectly or permanently, but they did bring them into being for a while.


The Brook Farm Papers are at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Massachusetts. The John Sullivan Dwight Brook Farm Papers are at the Boston Public Library. There are many memoirs and collections of documents telling of life and experience at Brook Farm, for example John Thomas Codman, Brook Farm, Historic and Personal Memoirs (1894); John Van Der Zee Sears, My Friends at Brook Farm (1912); Marianne Dwight, Letters from Brook Farm 1844-1847, Amy L. Reed, ed. (1929); Zoltan Haraszti, The Idyll of Brook Farm: As Revealed by Unpublished Letters in the Boston Public Library (1937); Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Letters, 1813-1843, Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson, eds. (1984); and Joel Myerson, The Brook Farm Book: A Collection of First-Hand Accounts of the Community (1987). Histories of Brook Farm include Lindsay Swift, Brook Farm: Its Members, Scholars and Visitors (1900); Edith Roelker Curtis, A Season in Utopia: The Story of Brook Farm (1961); and Sterling F. Delano, Brook Farm: the Dark Side of Utopia (2004). Among many books on Fourierism and other communitarian movements are Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (1991); Donald E. Pitzer, ed., America’s Communal Utopias (1997) (including Carl J. Guarneri, “Brook Farm and the Fourierist Phalanxes: Immediatism, Gradualism, and American Utopian Socialism”); Richard Francis, Transcendental Utopias (1997); Robert P. Sutton, Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Secular Communities, 1824-2000 (2004). For information on George Ripley, see the bibliography to the Ripley entry. On Charles Dana, see James Harrison Wilson, The Life of Charles A. Dana (1907).

Article by Aaron McEmry
Posted April 4, 2006