Brook Farm is probably the best known of the three utopian communities started by Unitarians or Universalists in the mid 19th century. Instigated by the Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist George Ripley (1802-1880) and his wife Sophia (1803-1861), Brook Farm was an effort to, in Ripley's words, build a "city of God, anew."
The community lasted only six and a half years. During that time, it occupied an important place in various mid-19th century reform efforts, including associationism (an early form of socialism), abolition, women rights, and the Workingmen's Movement.
Brook Farm achieved fame because of its many prominent Transcendentalist and literary residents, supporters, visitors, and critics. Nathaniel Hawthorne was an early resident and penned his novel The Blithedale Romance as a satire of the community. Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau all visited Brook Farm.
In a letter to Emerson, George Ripley outlined his original vision for the community. He wrote:
Our objects, as you know, are to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker...to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents...to do away 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 institution.
The community was to include a farm and a school, which featured George Ripley and his friends as teachers.
Support for the new community was widespread but not universal. Emerson was invited to join Brook Farm but declined. Reflecting on his decision in his journal, he wrote, "I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger." Emerson suspected that communal living would not allow him to "find myself more than now" and that Brook Farm would be incapable of reforming or transforming its members. Such, transformation was, in his view, an individual project and he believed the individual's "solitude is more prevalent and beneficent than the concert of crowds."
Brook Farm launched on shaky financial ground. The Ripley's raised money by organizing the community as a joint-stock venture. To be a full member of the community, one had to purchase or pledge to purchase at least one 500 dollar share. Even though 24 shares were purchased or pledged, the money raised through the sale of stocks was insufficient to launch the enterprise—due, in part, to the fact that almost half the money pledged by stockholders was never paid. The balance of the money for start-up capital and the purchase of a dairy farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts came as loans from the friends and neighbors of the Brook Farmers. The farm was immediately mortgaged to raise more funds.
Community members hoped to support themselves through their farming efforts and Brook Farm's boarding school. The reputation of the school rose quickly. Its students included Margaret Fuller's younger brother, Theodore Parker's ward, Emerson's nephew, and the children or charges of other prominent New Englanders.
The population at Brook Farm increased, reaching over 70 within a year of the community's founding. However, the success of the school and the growing population of Brook Farm did little to improve the community's finances. Several new buildings had to be built to accommodate new members, and the money for these building efforts was almost entirely borrowed. By its second year, Brook Farm was more than 15,000 dollars in debt.
The community's financial situation led the Brook Farm leadership to cast about for new sources of support. They quickly settled on the Associationist, or Fourierist, movement, inspired by the French socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837). The Fourierists advocated the creation of highly ordered cooperative communities called phalanxes. Each phalanx was to be organized around a phalanstere, a massive four-story building that included living quarters, community space, and workshops. Phalanxes were to combine industry and agriculture and eliminate the social tension due to poverty by ensuring that each person's basic needs were met. Fourier thought the unusual living arrangements he envisioned would liberate women from what he viewed as the oppression of traditional family life.
To transform into a Fourierist community, Brook Farm had to de-emphasize the community's agricultural work and focus on the development of industry. The community launched several efforts, including the manufacture of shoes and pewterware and the creation of a printing press. By 1844, the new direction of Brook Farm had led to the resignation of most of the remaining founding members of the community (Hawthorne and others had left Brook Farm within the first year). The ranks of Brook Farm, however, were replenished by craftspeople who joined the community inspired by the Fourierist vision.
The community's debts continued to mount as efforts were directed to the construction of a phalanx. To raise Brook Farm's profile in the Fourierist movement and to increase the community's revenues, Ripley started to publish The Harbinger, an official periodical of the Fourierist movement, in 1845. The journal brought in some income and its literary and cultural pages received attention, yet it did not significantly alleviate the community's financial situation.
Brook Farm began to collapse in late 1845 when a smallpox epidemic broke out in the community. Parents and guardians withdrew their children from the school, effectively eliminating Brook Farm's one significant source of income. In early 1846, the community decided to concentrate its remaining resources on finishing the phalanstere in the hopes that completing the massive structure would win Brook Farm the financial support of the larger Fourierist movement. These hopes were dashed when a fire destroyed the building shortly before its completion.
The phalanstere was without insurance and its loss brought financial ruin. Within a year, Brook Farm was disbanded and the community's property sold to pay some of its debts.
George and Sophia Ripley moved to New York City where George Ripley became a respected journalist. The community was memorialized in fiction by Hawthorne and has been the subject of widespread scholarly interest.