Skip to main content

A. J. Macdonald writings on American utopian communities

 Collection
Call Number: GEN MSS 1394

Scope and Contents

The collection contains writings and research material on seventy utopian associations compiled by A. J. MacDonald for his proposed volume "The Communities of the United States." The contents range from notes and brief sketches of communities to more extensive profiles based on Macdonald’s personal visits, his interviews with residents and colleagues, and transcriptions from contemporary publications. Utopian communities particularly well represented are the Brook Farm Phalanx, the Clermont Phalanx, New Harmony, the Icarian Community, the North American Phalanx, the Oneida Community, the Prairie Home Community, the Skaneateles Community, the Sylvania Association, the Wisconsin Phalanx, and several Shaker settlements. Macdonald also wrote about two communities outside the United States, the Brazilian Experiment and the Venezuelan Experiment of the Tropical Emigration Society, and about the utopian leaders A. J. Davis, Charles Fourier, Orson S. Murray, Robert Owen, Jemima Wilkinson, and Frances Wright.

Macdonald’s research primarily covered communities founded in New York (16), Ohio (14), and Pennsylvania (7), with five each in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, four in Illinois, two in Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey, and one each in Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The collection contains autograph notes, transcriptions, or narratives by Macdonald, based either on his personal visits or on information provided (or originally written) by community members. As a bookbinder, it is not surprising that several of the local contacts he identified in his writings were printers or editors, and several cases the facts may have been attained through responses to his 1851 questionnaire. One example of the latter could be his essay for the Spring Farm Association (leaves 382–384) in which he wrote, “One of the members thus answered some of my queries…” and “My informant says….” Some of the essays/sections, such as Society of the United Germans (leaf 499), have only a few lines of introduction followed by citations for printed sources from which Macdonald intended to quote or transcribe. Others, such as the Venezuelan Experiment (leaves 460–484), have a full historical essay that he signed and dated. While nearly all of the manuscripts are in Macdonald's hand, there are manuscripts written or transcribed by others, in particular, those on the Shaker communities. Also present in the files is a range of contemporary printed material gathered by Macdonald, including newspaper clippings, prospectuses, constitutions and by-laws, acts of incorporation, and articles of association, as well as the specimens of association stock certificates found in the files for the Leraysville Phalanx and the Sylvania Association. Visual material, from published wood engravings to the graphite and watercolor sketches he made on site, is included in the collection and noted in the box and folder list.

Macdonald wrote most of his notes and essays on sheets of blue-tinted lined paper, and pasted many of the clippings and other pieces of ephemera he had gathered onto scrap pages from books issued by the New York printer George Virtue, as well as two publications of John Tallis and Company, Tallis's Illustrated Atlas, and Modern History of the World (1851) and The American in Europe by Henry Clay Crockett (circa 1854). These sheets were likely discards picked up in the shop of Edward Walker and Son, the bindery that employed Macdonald. After the collection was acquired by John Humphrey Noyes, Macdonald's sheets were attached to white paper binding strips by Victor Cragin Noyes (1847–1905), and the pages stabbed sewn into paperboard covers (Box 3, folders 90–91). A letter from Victor Noyes to his father, dated October 10, 1865, is affixed to the back cover; in it he tells of his work on the collection, adding “From what I read of the manuscript as I was making out the catalogue, I should judge it would make a very interesting and useful book, and I anticipate a pleasant time by and by in helping you edit it.” Throughout Macdonald’s texts there are changes, comments, and additions made in pencil by John Humphrey Noyes as he was editing the manuscripts for his volume The History of American Socialisms. One example can be seen on leaf 632 of Macdonald’s essay on the Nashoba community, where Noyes has penciled the lead-in phrase “After further explanation of her plans she goes on to say:” just before Macdonald’s quotation from Frances Wright; this edit appears on page 70 of Noyes’s published book.

The alphabetical index to Macdonald’s manuscripts in Box 3, Folder 89, was transcribed by George Washington Noyes after one prepared by Victor Noyes. George Washington Noyes (1823–1870) was the youngest brother of John Humphrey Noyes, and was one of the leaders of the Oneida Community’s branch in Wallingford, Connecticut.

Community founding or span dates appearing in the folder list were assigned by Macdonald and taken from his manuscripts.

Dates

  • 1843-1865

Creator

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Existence and Location of Copies

Available on microfilm from Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Conditions Governing Use

The A. J. Macdonald Writings on American Utopian Communities is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of John Humphrey Noyes, 1870.

Related Materials

Oneida Community Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, Syracuse, New York.

Extent

4.25 Linear Feet (4 boxes)

Language of Materials

English

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL

https://hdl.handle.net/10079/fa/beinecke.macdon

Abstract

The collection contains writings and research material on seventy utopian associations compiled by A. J. MacDonald for his proposed volume "The Communities of the United States." The contents range from notes and brief sketches of communities to more extensive profiles based on Macdonald’s personal visits, his interviews with residents and colleagues, and transcriptions from contemporary publications. Also included are the printed materials such as prospectuses, constitutions and by-laws, and stock certificates that he collected in his travels, and visual material from published wood engravings to the graphite and watercolor sketches Macdonald made on site. Utopian communities particularly well represented are the Brook Farm Phalanx, the Clermont Phalanx, New Harmony, the Icarian Community, the North American Phalanx, the Oneida Community, the Prairie Home Community, the Skaneateles Community, the Sylvania Association, the Wisconsin Phalanx, and several Shaker settlements. Macdonald also wrote about two communities outside the United States, the Brazilian Experiment and the Venezuelan Experiment of the Tropical Emigration Society, and about the utopian leaders A. J. Davis, Charles Fourier, Orson S. Murray, Robert Owen, Jemima Wilkinson, and Frances Wright.

Biographical / Historical

The first biographical sketch of A. J. Macdonald was written by John Humphrey Noyes, the collection's donor and the founder of the Oneida Community in central New York State. Noyes acquired Macdonald's manuscripts sometime in the mid-1860s, and introduced him in a column he titled “Our Muck-Heap," published in the October 12, 1868, issue of The Circular, the Oneida Community's weekly paper:

"The writer and compiler of this mass was A. J. Macdonald, of whom we must give a respectful account. When we lived in Brooklyn some seventeen years ago, this man called on us several times on his business of collecting these observations on socialist experiments, and finally he seemed to take a really friendly interest in our Community, and we became acquainted with him. Our memory of him is imperfect; but an outline of his person remains in our imagination. He was a short, small man, with black hair and sharp eyes. He had a good-natured look, but seemed a little sad. We imagined that the sad scenes he met with while looking after the history of so many short-lived Communities, had given him a tinge of melancholy. He was indeed the 'Old Mortality' of Socialism, wandering about the country from grave to grave, patiently deciphering the epitaphs of defunct 'Phalanxes.' We learned from himself that he was a Scotchman by birth, and a printer by trade; that he was an admirer and disciple of [the Welsh industrialist and social reformer Robert] Owen, and came from the 'old country' partly to see and follow the fortunes of his master's experiments in Socialism: but finding Owenism in ruins and Fourierism going to ruin, he took upon himself the task of making a book, that should give future generations the benefit of the lessons taught by these attempts and failures. His own attempt was a failure. He gathered a huge mass of materials, wrote his preface, and then died of the cholera. Our record of his last visit is dated February, 1854."

Understandably focused on utopianism in his sketch, Noyes overlooked many other facets of A. J. Macdonald’s decade of accomplishments in America. His peripatetic life left only a few clues in published sources such as newspapers and city directories, though others can be found in his writings in the collection; many of his personal details were edited out by Noyes when he was preparing Macdonald's manuscripts for use in his volume The History of American Socialisms (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1870).

A. J. Macdonald's first and middle names are not known, nor is the place and date of his departure from Great Britain and arrival in the United States. He wrote of visiting Robert Owen's New Harmony experiment in 1841 (leaf 460, Venezuelan Experiment) and titled his essay about the community “New Harmony in 1842” (leaves 578–614). Noyes, in his November 9, 1868, column in The Circular stated that for Macdonald, New Harmony was “the very Mecca of his devotion” and that "Here he spent his first eighteen months in this country.” By 1844 Macdonald was living in Cincinnati, then one of the publishing centers in the United States, and participated in the founding of the Clermont Phalanx in March of that year; he revisited the settlement in July and took a view in watercolors (leaf 242). Macdonald’s essays reveal that in 1844 he visited communities around the state of Ohio, including the Prairie Home Community, D. A. Brooke’s Experiment, and the Union Village Shaker settlement, but in March 1845 he was in New York City and attended Robert Owen’s lectures at the Minerva Rooms (leaf 507). By that fall he was living in Albany, New York, where on October 26th he encountered Owen on the street (leaf 508) and enjoyed a visit with him at the home of the artist and abolitionist Julius R. Ames. Macdonald remained in Albany for at least three years, and visited the Shaker community in nearby Watervliet in September 1847 (leaves 671–676).

While he may also have been a printer as Noyes recalled, Macdonald was by his own admission a bookbinder, according to his report on his visit to Union Village in September 1844 (leaf 678). During his time in Albany he edited a gift book, The Rainbow for 1847 (Albany: A. L. Harrison, and New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846), for which he contributed essays on honesty and on the village of Port Huron, Ohio. Immediately distinctive for being the first gift book ever issued in Albany, The Rainbow has remained an exemplar for its unusual “patent stereographic binding” signed by the book’s publisher, Albany bookbinder Anthony L. Harrison. Macdonald worked in Harrison’s shop, as evidenced in the advertisement he placed in the March 31, 1848, issue of the Albany Evening Journal announcing that he, “of London, (Late Foreman to Mr. A. L. Harrison),” had just opened his own bookbindery. His single appearance in any Albany city directory was at that same time (Hoffman’s Albany Directory and City Register for the Years 1848/1849) where he was listed as a bookbinder. Also in 1848, Macdonald’s philosophical essay Monuments, Grave Stones, Burying Grounds, Cemeteries, Temples, Etc., was issued in pamphlet form by Albany’s great printer/publisher Joel Munsell; in it he made an argument against raising monuments, including tombstones, to the dead or to the living.

By January 1851, A. J. Macdonald was settled in New York City and employed as a finisher at E. Walker and Son’s New York Book-bindery, where he contributed his skills to a grand paneled binding on a Bible bound for display at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London (New York Spectator, January 30, 1851; see also the verso of leaf 302). At the same time he was steadily compiling material for his proposed volume "The Communities of the United States," and in March 1851 prepared a circular letter of inquiry (leaf 1) sent from his address at 75 Nassau St. to those who might be able assist him. The letter also outlined his publication plans, suggesting as models works by P. Douglass Gorrie and Sir Charles Lyell that had recently been issued in New York and London. Macdonald continued to visit communities outside the city including Modern Times in Brentwood, New York (June 1852), the Raritan Bay Community in Perth Amboy, New Jersey (September 1853), and the North American Phalanx in Monmouth County, New Jersey (three times between 1851 and 1853), as he continued to work on his manuscript; many of the leaves have his editorial markings such as “Complete” or “wants reading once more.” In the four narratives based on personal visits to Ohio communities and his essay on New Harmony, Macdonald notes that the contents were extracted from his “Travels in search of employment,” a manuscript not present in the collection, and one whose title suggests that his emigration from Great Britain may have been driven by economics, with his research on utopians a valuable but ancillary project.

Macdonald's name appeared as "McDonald" in the Albany city directory and his newspaper advertisement, as well as on the printed title page, table of contents, and essay bylines in The Rainbow; the volume was issued with a second, engraved, title page on which his name was spelled correctly. On his Munsell title page, his printed circular letter, and in every instance of an autograph signature on his manuscripts, it was always spelled "A. J. Macdonald."

John Humphrey Noyes, in his introduction to The History of American Socialisms, again wrote that Macdonald died of cholera in New York in 1854. Noyes provided no specific place or date, but it is certainly likely that the “sombre pilgrim” was one of the city’s 2,509 victims of the great epidemic that year. In April 1854, A. J. Macdonald signed and dated the manuscript of his preface (leaves 2–5), making it his final known contribution to his unfinished work.

Custodial History

The material was organized into its present arrangement by John Humphrey Noyes and his son Victor Cragin Noyes in the 1860s. John Humphrey Noyes, a founder of the Oneida Community, acquired the manuscripts in the mid-1860s from one of Macdonald’s relatives, and wrote about the collection in a column titled “Our Muck-Heap,” published in the Oneida Community’s weekly paper The Circular (vol. 5, no. 30, October 12, 1868, page 236): “When it came into our hands it was in the loosest state of disorder; but we have strung the leaves together, paged them, and made an index of their contents.”

The leaves were numbered in pencil straight through the collection, whether the contents were manuscript, printed, or graphic material. The binding strips affixed by Victor Noyes are still attached to Macdonald’s papers from leaf 229 to the end, and the album’s front and back covers are in Box 3, folders 90-91. The index prepared by Victor Cragin Noyes and copied over by George Washington Noyes is in Box 3, folder 89. A "Catalogue of the McDonald Materials," a precis of Macdonald's writings prepared by Victor Noyes, is in the Oneida Community Collection at the Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, Syracuse, New York.

John Humphrey Noyes provided an overall description of Macdonald's papers in a second column, “Our Muck-Heap, No. II” (vol. 5, no. 31, October 19, 1868, page 244), and wrote articles on each community in forty subsequent columns appearing in The Circular through July 19, 1869 (vol. 6, no. 18); the second half of his columns were titled “American Socialisms.” In a column published on February 7, 1870 (vol. 6, no. 47, page 372), Noyes addressed the critics of his book and mentioned that anyone may “consult the original manuscripts in the library of Yale College.”

Title
Guide to the A. J. Macdonald Writings on American Utopian Communities
Status
Completed
Author
by Sandra Markham
Date
2016
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

Contact:
P. O. Box 208330
New Haven CT 06520-8330 US
(203) 432-2977

Location

121 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours

Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.