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The Oneida Community:
The Nineteenth-Century Utopian Society of John Humphrey Noyes
To state it briefly, the old Oneida Community was a religious and social society founded in Oneida, New York, in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes and his followers. In the beginning, most of them were Vermonters, almost all were New Englanders.
The Community was founded on Noyes' theology of Perfectionism, a form of Christianity with two basic values; self-perfection and communalism. These ideals were translated into everyday life through shared property and work. Noyes' solution was a society where the interest of one member became the interest of all - the enlargement of the family. They called themselves Perfectionists and, being logical and literal, they proceeded to substitute for the small unit of home and family and individual possessions, the larger unit of group-family and group-family life.
The Oneida Community canned fruits and vegetables; they made traps and chains; they made traveling bags and straw hats and mop sticks and sewing silk and, last of all, they found out how to make silver knives and forks and spoons.
This is the beginning of what has grown to become Oneida Silversmiths and the Oneida Ltd. of today.
Learn more about the history of the Oneida Community and the heritage of Oneida Ltd.
Visit Mansion House (www.oneidacommunity.org), where you can learn more about on-going activities at this historic property, the first home of the Oneida Community.
Oneida Ltd.: A proud tradition since 1880
Oneida Ltd. is one of the world’s largest marketers of stainless steel flatware, and offers a complete range of tabletop products. Its operations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Australia market stainless, silverplated, and sterling flatware products, china dinnerware, and crystal and glassware items. The company originated in a utopian community established in the mid-nineteenth century, and has had a strong reputation for quality since that time.
The Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in upstate New York in 1848. The Community was founded on Noyes's theology of Perfectionism, a form of Christianity with two basic values: self-perfection and communalism. These ideals were translated into everyday life through shared property and work as well as "complex marriage" - monogamous marriage was abolished, and children were raised communally from their second year until age 12.
This child care system freed the women as well as the men to take part in the Community's manufacturing of animal traps, chains, silk items, and silver knives, forks, and spoons. The Oneida Community soon became known not only for the unconventional lifestyle of its members, but also for the quality of its goods. The Newhouse trap invented by a founding member of the community was known around the world.
The Founding of Oneida Ltd.
The Oneida Community existed longer than most other utopias of the nineteenth century in part because of the solvency of its businesses, and the members of the group lived and worked together from 1848 until the late 1870s. Prosperity didn't shield the organization from conflict, however, and in 1879 the Community split into two factions. Unable to resolve their differences, the members voted to transform the group's businesses into a joint-stock company, the Oneida Community, Limited, which would be owned and operated by former members of the society. The Community was valued at $600,000 and stocks were distributed according to each member's original contribution and length of service. The stock was divided among 226 men, women, and children, the majority of whom received between $2,000 and $4,999 in shares. The progressive nature of the new company was reflected in, among other things, the presence of a woman, Harriet Joslyn, as superintendent of the silk mill and a member of the board of directors.
During the fifteen years following Oneida's reorganization, the company's financial standing deteriorated. A severe depression in the 1890s, inadequate leadership, and emigration from the community plagued the new company. Some have speculated that the failure of the utopian community contributed to demoralization of the worker/stockholders, further eroding the company's prospects for success.
But in January 1894, Pierrepont Burt Noyes (P.B. Noyes), the son of Oneida's founder, rejoined the company after working as an Oneida wholesaler in "The World," as many Oneidans referred to the world outside their community. At only 23 years old, P.B. Noyes replaced an uncle on Oneida's board of directors. His experience outside the Community enabled him to see and criticize weaknesses that threatened the company's existence. Within two months Noyes led a proxy fight to oust directors who clung to old-fashioned business strategies. Nearly 24,000 shares were voted, and Noyes's side won by just 16 shares. Noyes was offered the position of superintendent at Oneida's Niagara Falls Plant, and soon raised the operation's standards of quality to their former levels. In 1899 the company announced its largest profits to date and paid its stockholders a dividend of seven percent.
By the time he reached the age of 30, Noyes had risen to de facto control of Oneida. The board nominated him to the newly created post of general manager with authority to oversee all of the company's divisions- canning and manufacturing of tableware, traps, chains, and silk thread. Noyes's rise to prominence at Oneida marked the company's emergence into the industrial world of the twentieth century. Before the turn of the century Oneida had relied on its managers' creativity, thrift, and diligence and the excellent reputation of its products. Noyes introduced the new production methods, competitive strategies, large-scale distribution methods, and promotional efforts that were beginning to typify American industry. In 1904 he established Oneida's emphasis on marketing and brand recognition by increasing the company's promotion budget from $5,000 to $30,000 per year. Noyes financed this move by diverting profits from the trap business that would otherwise have been used to expand trap manufacturing, which he saw as a dying business.
The Early Years of Advertising
From that time on, even during the Depression, advertising remained a major item on Oneida's balance sheet. Oneida's earliest advertising campaigns established many of the trademarks that would characterize the company's advertising for decades to come. The print ads typically appeared in widely circulated women's magazines. Rather than describe all of its tableware at length, Oneida used most of its advertising space for a picture of one or two pieces of silverplate, which it often associated visually with someone or something attractive. Oneida was also one of the first companies to employ celebrity spokespeople to promote its products. Ten years before the practice was widely accepted, Oneida commissioned Irene Castle, a famous dancer and fashion plate, to promote Community ware.
Harmony and Idealism
Despite Noyes's aggressive move to gain control of Oneida, he still sought to maintain the communal harmony and idealism on which the Community was founded. Managers who lost positions on the board of directors retained positions with the company, and many came to respect the new management. In addition, Kenwood, a private community built around the company, gave Oneida a sense of family that remained strong through the early decades of the twentieth century; well into the 1920s, descendants of Oneidans held almost 90 percent of company stock. Noyes sought to make Oneida and the community of Kenwood "modern utopias" by increasing wages, improving work conditions, providing welfare and recreational benefits, and improving the physical environs of Kenwood.
Noyes attracted children of Oneidans who had gone off to college and careers in "The World" back to the company by appealing to their sense of ambition: the modern utopia he described meant intellectual challenge, reasonable pay, and self-improvement.
In 1904 Noyes proposed voluntary salary reductions for management when the company encountered financial difficulties. The proposal was enforced in 1914, when all salaried personnel took a 10 percent pay cut until early 1916. In 1921 larger cuts were necessary- Noyes reduced his own salary by half, the directors took a 33 percent cut, and other officials took smaller cuts corresponding to their salaries. The Depression required similar cuts.
Oneida's chain business was sold in 1912 and the silk industry was liquidated in 1913, when man-made substitutes for silk were invented. The company's canning business was discontinued in 1915 because it was unable to compete with large-scale modern production methods. But the consolidations enabled Oneida to open its first international factory, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 1916.
Noyes resigned from the general managership in 1917 to let younger people into Oneida's management. Three months after he resigned, the United States entered World War I. Oneida joined the wartime effort with the production of ammunition clips, lead-plated gas shells, and combat knives. The company also served as the principal source of a wide range of surgical instruments used in military hospitals. In 1919 Noyes returned briefly to Oneida after serving with the U.S. government's Fuel Administration. He later served in Europe on the post-World War I Peace Conference and the Rhineland Commission to decide the particulars of Allied occupation of Germany.
Noyes resumed the general managership of Oneida in 1921 amid financial crisis. After steering the company through that predicament, he gave the general manager position to a son-in-law, Miles E. Robertson, in 1926, retaining the post of president and de facto control of the company. Oneida's trap business was sold in 1925, which left the company entirely dependent on the silverware manufacture. By 1930, 33 percent of the board of directors was composed of people from outside the community.
A New Era
In 1935 the company's name was changed to Oneida Ltd. to differentiate tableware produced by Oneida from that of lower quality subsidiaries of the company, such as Wm. A. Rogers. The name change signaled a new era at Oneida. Noyes ceded control of Oneida to Miles Robertson, although he didn't formally hand over the presidency until 1950. Robertson was known for his "toughness": despite the rigors of the Great Depression, Oneida made a profit in 1933, when no other company in the silverware industry could. By this time, Oneida had subsidiaries in Canada and Great Britain.
Robertson began to recruit outside Oneida and Kenwood during that decade as well. After the mid-1930s, Noyes's ideological influence gave way to more worldly viewpoints. Oneida became less community-oriented and more like a typical corporate culture with few family ties and less of a social utopian bent. Before World War II, new members of Oneida's management knew that they would never become wealthy at the company, but would gain personal satisfaction through the successes of the company. But with the arrival of more and more "outsiders," increasing competition for quality personnel, and increasing segregation of Oneida from the Community, management salaries slowly grew to meet prevailing wages in the industry.
World War II brought about other changes at Oneida as well. The company's contribution to the war effort included production of silverware for the Army and Navy and surgical instruments for military hospitals. Oneida also produced products for the battlefield: rifle sights, parachute releases, hand grenades, shells, survival guns, bayonets, aircraft fuel tanks, and chemical bombs, among other things. The company even purchased a separate factory in Canastota, New York, that produced army trucks, aircraft survival kits, and jet engine parts. That plant stayed in operation for several years after the war.
Although the Oneida of the 1950s had accepted the wage scales of the outside world, it continued to operate by Noyes's principle that management should take salary cuts in tough financial times. However, the employees of the 1950s had changed along with the times, and a 1957 cut in directors' salaries was perceived by employees not as a demonstration of management's vested interest in the welfare of the company, but as a drastic measure indicating impending financial disaster.
The Sixties and Seventies
The directors restored their pay, but Oneida's financial problems continued until 1960, when the company posted its first annual deficit. That same year Pierrepont Trowbridge ("Pete") Noyes replaced his father as president of Oneida. Oneida had trouble adjusting to the loss of government orders that had supplemented silverware sales during World War II and the Korean War. The work force declined from a high of 3,800 in 1949 to 2,000 in 1960. Oneida responded by developing new lines with new products, reorganizing production, and introducing new advertising and marketing strategies. By the end of the decade, the work force had grown to more than 3,000 employees.
Oneida's most important product change during this period was its commitment to stainless steel flatware. It was a bold and pioneering move, considering that stainless had held a secondary position in the industry behind the more expensive and prestigious silverplated and sterling flatware. The early 1960s saw stainless flatware improve dramatically in quality and stature as Oneida introduced Chateau, one of the first stainless patterns to emulate sterling-like designs successfully. By the late 1960s technological breakthroughs enabled Oneida to introduce the first ornate traditional pierced pattern in stainless. As stainless flatware gained a place in the silver departments of fine department stores, its convenient easy-care qualities enabled it to surpass silverplate and sterling in popularity. The rise of stainless flatware sparked Oneida's recovery, and led the company into a new era of growth.
In 1977 Oneida moved to diversify its interests through the purchase of the Camden Wire Co., Inc. Camden Wire was one of the principal U.S. manufacturers of industrial wire products. One year later Oneida acquired Rena-Ware, a cookware manufacturer with operations in 34 countries and the majority of sales outside the United States. That year the company also got a new president, John Marcellus, Jr., who had joined Oneida in 1946. Pete Noyes continued as chairman until 1981, when Marcellus also assumed that position.
By 1983 the company sold over half of all flatware purchased in the United States. The company sought to purchase other companies in order to infiltrate the total tableware market. Oneida purchased Buffalo China, Inc., one of the nation's largest volume producers of commercial chinaware, and Webster-Wilcox, a producer of expensive holloware (silver serving platters). In 1984 the company acquired D. J. Tableware, maker of high quality flatware, holloware, and china for the foodservice industry. Oneida also began to market a line of crystal stemware and giftware in the mid-1980s.
The latter part of the decade saw several further changes at Oneida in management as well as business approaches. In 1986 John Marcellus retired as chairman and president. William Matthews, previously the company's general counsel, was named chairman and CEO, while Samuel Lanzafame, who previously headed the Camden Wire subsidiary, was named president. In addition, Gary Moreau, who had accumulated broad management experience since joining the company in 1977, became executive vice president of the Oneida Silversmiths Division, the company's core unit.
Meanwhile, Oneida responded to a shift in market conditions by re-addressing the production of lower-end, less expensive flatware. Like many domestic manufacturers, Oneida had lost much of this business segment to import competition. However, a renewed emphasis on these high-volume lines provided Oneida with a strong complement to its more expensive flatware selections, and also enabled the company to make fuller use of its factories.
Also during this period, Oneida made additional adjustments in subsidiary operations. After selling the Rena-Ware holding in the early 1980s, a few years later the company became majority owner of Oneida International, Inc., a joint venture formed to market Italian-designed tabletop products. The products are sold in the international foodservice market through an Italian subsidiary, Sant'Andrea S.r.l. On the domestic front, the Kenwood Silver subsidiary expanded its network of retail factory store outlets located in resort and destination shopping areas; the stores sell Oneida's excess inventory along with discontinued items and factory seconds.
Within the company, worker loyalty was enhanced by the creation of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan in 1987 that put 15 percent of Oneida’s stock in employees’ hands. From the late ‘80s into the early ‘90s, Oneida invested more than $100 million into plant improvements, including computer design and manufacturing systems, plant consolidation, and machinery upgrades. Lanzafame resigned as president in 1989. Moreau was named president in 1991 and held that position until he resigned at the end of 1995. In January 1996 Peter J. Kallet was named president and chief operating officer, joining Matthews at the helm of the company. Kallet, who previously was senior vice president of Oneida’s foodservice business unit, originally joined the company in 1967 and has a strong background in Oneida’s sales, marketing, product and purchasing departments.
In the latter part of the ‘90s, Oneida revamped its strategy and focused on being a complete tabletop products company, thus emphasizing what had always been its greatest strength. In support of this goal, the company in 1997 sold its Camden Wire subsidiary; in 1996 bought Rego China, a major marketer of commercial dinnerware; and in 1998 bought Stanley Rogers and Westminster China, Australia-based marketers of flatware and dinnerware. Also during this period, Oneida significantly expanded its crystal and glassware product lines through several marketing and distribution agreements with independent companies.
The end of 1998 saw a change in leadership; Matthews retired from daily operations and was succeeded by Kallet, who became Chief Executive Officer in addition to President. Matthews continued as Chairman until his board term expired in May 2000, at which time Kallet became Chairman as well.
The New Millennium
Oneida marked the beginning of the new millennium with further acquisitions and business expansions. In mid-2000 the company acquired Sakura, Inc., a major marketer of consumer dinnerware; Delco International Ltd. (Inc.), an established marketer of foodservice tableware products; and Viners of Sheffield Limited, an established marketer of flatware and cookware in the United Kingdom. The moves significantly strengthened the company’s presence in three important business segments.
However, by 2003 a series of economic downturns and competitive pressures had forced Oneida to take several difficult but necessary steps to protect the company’s long-term viability. An economy that began to soften in the latter part of 2000 was worsened by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which eroded general consumer confidence and cost Oneida approximately $25 million in sales to the airline industry as flatware was removed from planes. Also during this period, imported products became significantly more competitive in both pricing and quality. The increased competition coupled with the slower economy severely affected orders for products made in Oneida’s factories, creating substantial negative manufacturing variances.
As a result, the company changed to sourcing instead of manufacturing for all of its product lines. Beginning in late 2003, this initiative included closing five factories in Buffalo, Mexico, Italy and China; Oneida retained the Buffalo China trade name and logos, and sold that factory to an independent organization. A year later, the company announced it was closing the Sherrill, N.Y. flatware factory, after the factory’s conversion to a lean manufacturing system was unable to achieve the cost savings that were necessary for the site to remain viable. The company’s management believes this restructuring of fixed-cost factory operations to variable-cost sourcing has better positioned Oneida for consistent performance regardless of market conditions, and should enable the company to perform well even during challenging periods.
Oneida Ltd. Today
Throughout the economic, social and political changes that Oneida has seen during its history, the company’s reputation for excellence and brand recognition has remained unshakable. An independent national consumer study has found that 90 percent of consumers name Oneida as the first company they think of when asked about stainless steel flatware—an invaluable measure of the Oneida brand’s strength.
Just as importantly, Oneida’s workforce has maintained its dedication even through the most trying of times — adapting some original community ideals to fit the modern-day goal of being a complete tabletop supplier. “The dignity of work” has been a constant theme; every job is recognized as an important contributor to the company’s success. Brand recognition, product quality and dedicated employees are enduring strengths that form the backbone of the company as it moves forward.
Oneida Canada Limited
Oneida U.K. Limited
Oneida S.A de C.V.
Kenwood Silver Company, Inc.
Buffalo China, Inc.
Viners of Sheffield Limited
Delco International Ltd.
Oneida Australia PTY Ltd.
THC Systems, Inc.
d/b/a Rego China
Company History reprinted with permission of St. James Press, Detroit, Michigan. 1994.