In 1906, novelist Upton Sinclair founded a cooperative community in Englewood, New Jersey, not far outside New York. It would exist for just six months before being completely consumed by fire, but Sinclair would spend the rest of his life dreaming about his time there. They called it the Helicon Home Colony. And despite sex scandals in the press and a policy that specifically excluded non-whites, Sinclair believed his little utopian experiment was nothing less than the future of American living.
The desire to build a new community from scratch is not confined to any one political persuasion or personality type in particular. In the 1960s, Walt Disney imagined building an experimental city called EPCOT that would be a futuristic showcase for American free enterprise. The hippie counterculture of the 1960s and '70s would produce dozens of small communities all over the U.S., many of which were built on left-wing ideas of economic and social justice. And in the 1970s, some American libertarians thought that space colonies might allow them to live in the Ayn Rand inspired utopia they'd come to dream of. Who among us hasn't felt so misanthropic some days that we just want to leave the planet and start our own space station society?
I don't really have much of a utopian streak in me these days, but you better believe that every time I hear my neighbors screaming at each other across the hall I instinctively open up a new tab in my browser to check out real estate in rural Montana. Sometimes we want to make the world a better place, shaped by our own ideas of ideological perfection. Other times we just want to get away from it all. With his new community, Sinclair hoped to do a bit of both.
Left: Upton Sinclair with his son David circa 1904, Right: Sinclair's first wife Meta
As a newly famous writer in 1906, Sinclair would take nearly half the the profits from his muckraking book The Jungle (over $30,000 or about $755,000 adjusted for inflation) and plunge it into his new communal living endeavor. The Jungle was a fictionalized account of the real working conditions of immigrant labor, intended to shock Americans by exposing the struggles of the working class. Instead, it brought on new public safety laws to ensure that the nation's food supply was slightly less disgusting. A noble feat indeed, but not Sinclair's intent. "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach," Sinclair would write later.
Sinclair hoped that his Helicon Home Colony (sometimes called Helicon Hall) would become a different example for the nation — a new way of living modeled on reason and science, partially inspired by the late 19th century socialist utopians that would come before him. But he also just really wanted to get away from it all. And by "it all" I mean his family.
During this time Upton Sinclair was not a happy man. Despite the instant fame and fortune that accompanied the publication of his most famous work, (most famous, at least until Oil was made into the 2007 movie There Will Be Blood) Sinclair found that he didn't enjoy being a father. His personal life was an absolute mess, having spent the last three years largely in seclusion with his family on an isolated farm furiously writing The Jungle. He and his wife Meta were not getting along very well. Sinclair decided that he wanted to spend less time caring for his four-year-old son and attending to the emotional needs of his wife and spend more time writing.
Sinclair explained in his autobiography years later, "It did not occur to Thyrsis [Sinclair called himself Thyrsis when describing this period of his life] that not every home might be as unhappy as his own; if anyone had suggested the idea to him, he would have said no one should be happy in a backward way of life, and he would have tried to make them unhappy by his arguments."
His solution? Build a small utopian community that would allow for his wife to occupy her time interacting with other adults, and allow his son to be looked after by other people. Inspired by the Progressive feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sinclair set out to build a community where things like cooking and the raising of children could be done by those most suited for the task. Or at least what his particular brand of utopianism saw as those most suited. This was meant to leave other creative pursuits to anyone who desired them, ideally creating what Gilman believed to be the only route to equality of the sexes.
Sinclair wrote an article for June 4, 1906 issue of The Independent advertising his plan for a utopian community and soliciting people to apply to join. This was followed up by a piece in the New York Times the following month which more specifically laid out the ideals of a community that would involve communal cooking and cooperative care for children. The community was supposed to have its own power plant, a "scientifically constructed" kitchen, a lavish dining hall, the latest in electric amenities and plenty of machines to improve efficiency both on the farm and in the home.
A series of meetings were held in the late summer and early fall of 1906 where Sinclair would answer questions and the core group of members would take shape. Though Sinclair was very openly socialist, he insisted that the community itself would not be a socialist experiment. People of nearly all political beliefs were invited to buy shares in the building that would one day sit on nine and a half acres.
But while your politics didn't so much matter, your race, religion and profession certainly did. The community would only allow writers, musicians, academics, artists or any other "creative" types to live there. The community also explicitly banned black people and less publicly banned Jews. According to Perdita Buchan, writing in the 2007 book Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden, Sinclair himself quietly returned one rejected applicant's money, apologizing that the other members had voted against allowing Jewish people from joining the Helicon Home Colony.
If this account of anti-semitism as a cause of rejection is true (and Sinclair would very publicly deny it in a letter to the editor of the New York Times) this seemed a rather implausible excuse by Sinclair. There was a board of directors comprised of five people, but seeing as how he owned 160 of Helicon's 230 shares, Sinclair ostensibly controlled about 70% of the board's vote and could have overruled anyone if he had thought it appropriate. As Anthony Arthur notes in his 2006 biography of Sinclair, he was half-jokingly called the "Czar of Helicon Hall."
1906 photo of the Helicon Hall fireplace where nightly lectures and debates would occur
About forty-six adults and fifteen children would occupy Helicon for the majority of its brief existence. They would live and eat and debate and work together, mixing it up in what they thought was a bold new realization of a creative person's paradise. But there were troubles from the beginning.
Right from the start in October of 1906, the newspapers in New York poked fun at Sinclair's experiment in communal living as being little more than a sex cult. Or at the very least, a place where sexual mores were constantly being challenged.
Sinclair wrote about his troubles with the press years later in his autobiography:
It was generally taken for granted among the newspapermen of New York that the purpose for which I had started this colony was to have plenty of mistresses handy. They wrote this up on that basis — not in plain words, for that would have been libel — but by innuendo easily understood. So it was with our socialist colony as with the old-time New England colonies — there were Indians hiding in the bushes, seeking to pierce us with sharp arrows of wit. Reporters came in disguise, and went off and wrote false reports; others came as guests, and went off and ridiculed us because we had beans for lunch.
Sinclair's conflicts with the press would continue throughout Helicon's brief existence, largely thanks to the community's close proximity to New York and a late Victorian era sensibility that was easily scandalized. But when you look at the evidence, the media weren't altogether wrong in their assumptions. While by no means a free love community, Sinclair introduced his wife Meta to a member of the community as one of his mistresses in early December, hoping she would approve. She did not, and not long after this very awkward encounter he broke off his relationship with the other woman. One of Sinclair's biographers, Anthony Arthur, speculates that the hasty break-up was an effort to not become embarrassed by the press who could only hint at his marital indiscretions.
Sinclair believed that machines and the proper scientific approach to cooking would solve many modern day problems with the capitalist system. Efficiency in production and the maintenance of one's life had gotten a bad name with capitalism. Sinclair felt that he was going to use these tools properly for the betterment of his new community.
Writing in 1906, Sinclair explained:
It takes a hundred cooks to prepare a hundred meals badly, while twenty cooks could prepare one meal for a hundred families, and do it perfectly. It costs a hundred thousand dollars to build one kitchen! But, of course, if you have large-scale cooking at present you can only have it under capitalist auspices; and so it is associated in your minds with uncleanliness, and bad service, and high prices.
The answer would lie in machines, proclaimed Sinclair. Industrial machines that would never find their way to Helicon Hall.
It takes a hundred churns and a hundred aching backs to make a thousand pounds of butter; it would take only one machine and a man to tend it to make the same thousand pounds, and the cost of making it would be cut ninety-five per cent.
Food was a constant source of conflict for the members of Helicon. By design, everyone in the community was eating from the same kitchen. But the individual dietary needs and desires of each member meant that meal time was almost always chaotic. If you've ever tried to efficiently and economically prepare food for a large group of people, you'll know that certain compromises must be made. Imagine trying to serve Thanksgiving to about sixty of your friends and relatives, including that cousin who's vegan and that uncle who's gluten intolerant and your grandma who can't do dairy... only it's every single meal.
At first, Sinclair resisted the urge to employ traditional domestic servants. He envisioned his community to be one that utilized the services of local students in a sort of internship program. One such intern was Sinclair Lewis (a young author who would later go on to fame and understandably be confused with Upton Sinclair by countless freshmen English students of the late 20th century). Lewis seemed to largely enjoy his time working at the Helicon community, though he would write a satirical piece for the New York Sun upon his departure that teased some of the more eccentric aspects of the community.
After heaps of stress involving everything from the cooking to the plumbing, the community finally broke down and hired traditional servants. This, of course, left the pseudo-populist nature of the project in doubt in the eyes of the skeptical public. Though it would seem to me that the community's refusal to admit virtually anyone who wasn't a white academic or artist of Christian heritage already left their biases bare.
The method of raising children was perhaps seen as the most revolutionary aspect of the community. Sinclair believed that any place for children should be "scientifically constructed," clean, and well-ventilated. As clean as any hospital, he maintained, and operated as efficiently and as safety-conscious as one.
It is my idea that the caring for children should be recognised as a profession, and that servants should have nothing to do with it; it is my idea that it should be done in a place built for the purpose, with floors for babies to crawl where there is no dirt for them to eat, with playgrounds for children where there were no stoves and no boiling water, no staircases and wells, no cats and dogs, no workbaskets, lamps, pianos sewing machines, jam closets, inkstands and authors' writing tables.
Sinclair's dream that children would only be raised by professionals (far away from an authors' writing table) was one not fully realized at Helicon Home Colony. The community couldn't afford to pay anyone with all of those particular skills and moreover, it's not certain that enough employable people with those skills even existed. Instead, the community's women took turns looking after and teaching the children, earning wages for the job that would be taken off their family's dues.
February 14, 1907 New York Times, a month before Helicon would burn to ground
The fire started at 3 AM on March 16, 1907. Sinclair was awakened by the sound of crackling and that haunting smell of smoke. He rushed to warn the others but found that it was he who was late to escape. Nobody had come to warn him!
The members of Helicon amassed out in the cold and watched their community burn to the ground. "We stood in the snow and watched our beautiful utopia flame and roar, until it crashed in and died away to a dull glow," Sinclair wrote in his autobiography. They turned to their wealthy neighbors in Englewood who gave them clothes and food and shelter. Most of these neighbors found their little utopia bizarre and immoral, but for the time being they were nothing but gracious.
Somehow, only one person would lose their life in the fire. A carpenter by the name of Lester Briggs who Sinclair said had been drinking the night before.
The day after the fire Sinclair hinted in the press that certain interests in steel or beef may have started the fire. Sinclair told the New York Times that he didn't want to make any unfounded charges, but followed that up with mention that he had recently been working on stories about the Steel Trust and now all of his research and legal documents were destroyed by the fire.
Some members of the community reported hearing explosions before the fire started. Indeed, three weeks before the fire members of the community had found some dynamite in a cellar that no one could explain. It was removed without much more thought. Sinclair almost immediately walked his thinly veiled accusations in the press back, but the cause of the fire was never really proven to any objective observer's satisfaction.
Since a man had died, there was an inquest into the utopian community and any negligence that Sinclair may be culpable for. The hearings were somewhat scandalous and some on the coroner's jury accused the community of being a "free-love nest" and even hinted that perhaps Sinclair started the fire himself for the insurance money. Standing before judgment in crutches, Sinclair vigorously defended against the charges, including the accusation that he didn't provide adequate safety for people in the community — a stinging accusation against a man who had just previously made his fortune highlighting unsafe working conditions in factories.
In the end, they brought no charges against Sinclair and everyone in the community was given back the money they had invested in Helicon. Sinclair was actually the only one who wasn't made whole financially after all the insurance money went to the other members. But as heart-wrenching as the experience was, it wouldn't break his spirit. At least not right away.
Sinclair would continue to dabble in the communal utopian life for years to come. First, by exploring the possibility of opening up a Helicon West in California. And then by doing brief stints in single-tax communities in Fairhope, Alabama and Arden, Delaware.
Writing in his 1919 book, The Brass Check, Sinclair made it clear that he would always long for those few months he spent in his utopian New Jersey. For Sinclair, Helicon Hall was nothing less than living in the future.
I look back on Helicon Hall to-day, and this is the way I feel about it. I have lived in the future; I have known those wider freedoms and opportunities that the future will grant to all men and women. Now, by harsh fate I have been seized and dragged back into a lower order of existence and commanded to spend the balance of my days therein.
Sinclair described the demise of his utopian community as something akin to experiencing modern conveniences like soap and indoor plumbing, only to be suddenly thrust back into an age where spraying oneself with perfume would have to do.
"I have lived in the future and all things about me [now] seem drab and sordid in comparison," Sinclair wrote in 1962.
Sinclair believed that he'd built paradise; a window to the future for generations to come. But just as tomorrow never actually comes — as every new tomorrow simply dissolves into the harsh inevitability of a new today — so too does utopia's literal meaning prove fateful for Sinclair and others like him. For utopia isn't just a dreamer's land, it is quite literally translated as no place.
Images: 1906 photograph by Jessie Tarbox Beals scanned from the 1907 book The Industrialist Republic by Upton Sinclair at the Los Angeles Library, Upton Sinclair with his son David circa 1904 and his wife Meta scanned from the book Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair by Anthony Arthur, 1906 photograph of the Helicon Hall scanned from the book Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair by Anthony Arthur
Sources: The Industrialist Republic by Upton Sinclair (1907), The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (1962), Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair by Anthony Arthur (2006), Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden by Perdita Buchan (2007), A Utopia During The Progressive Era: The Helicon Home Colony, 1906-1907 by Lawrence Kaplan (1984)