William Bailie, “Josiah Warren” (New Harmony Movement)

William Bailie, “Josiah Warren,” in George B. Lockwood, The New Harmony Movement, New York: Appleton, 1905.



“A remarkable American, Josiah Warren.”


AMONG the most remarkable characters attracted to New Harmony in community days was Josiah Warren, equally notable as an inventive genius, a social philosopher, and a peaceful revolutionist. He was born in Boston in 1798, of historically famous Puritan stock. Of his parents and early life but little is known. At an early age he displayed musical talents, and, with his brother George, played professionally in local bands. At the age of twenty he married, and soon after set out from his native place to improve his fortunes in the West. He settled in Cincinnati, and gained an honorable repute as an orchestra leader; but he had other interests besides music. Mechanical pursuits occupied his leisure hours, the earliest fruit of which was the invention of a lamp, patented in 1823, which substituted lard for tallow as fuel, giving a better light at a lower cost. Its success was such that the inventor before long was running a lamp manufactory in Cincinnati.

More pressing problems than those of illumination were, however, shortly to arise and absorb the active mind and generous heart of the ingenious young New Englander. There came to Cincinnati in 1824 a visitor whose reputation [295] as the boldest and most successful social reformer of the age was world-wide. When Robert Owen, with a fervor of conviction and inspiring enthusiasm which have never been surpassed, unfolded his plans for the inauguration of The New Moral World, Warren was so much impressed that he decided to join the grand experiment which was about to begin at New Harmony. So, after disposing of his lamp factory, Warren, with his young family, joined Owen and his enthusiasts on the Rappite property, hoping to assist in founding the ideal community which was to usher in a millennium of peace and plenty, brotherhood and happiness, ultimately to embrace all mankind.

Here Warren found a field in which to study the problems of government, property, and industry, together with the relation of the individual to society, such as never before was given to man. During two stormy years of vicissitudes, disappointments, and failure Warren remained with the community, and bore his share of the burdens incident to so pretentious an undertaking. And when he finally departed it was not, like so many others, as an embittered reactionary, but as an earnest, hopeful student who had spent his time to good purpose. As one who had with painful solicitude witnessed the inadequacy of communism to correct the evils of property; and the failure of paternal authority, as well as of majority rule, to solve the problems of government, he had learned an invaluable lesson, and stored up pregnant experience for use in future efforts to grapple with the same vital issues. With Warren the failure of communism was simply a reason for trying another plan of attack upon the existing institutions of society. Like Owen, he never doubted that the “emancipation of man” was possible, and human happiness only a question of suitable social adjustment and the application of what he deemed to be right principles.

Chief among the causes which, in Warren’s mind, led to disaster at New Harmony, were the suppression of individuality, the lack of initiative, and the absence of personal responsibility. When everything was decided by authority, or by the will of the majority, each was prone to ascribe the faults of the system to the shortcomings of his neighbors. These defects Warren believed to be inseparable from any social scheme based upon government and community of goods. Even under the most favorable conditions failure would in the long run be assured. He concluded, therefore, that the basis of all future reform must be complete individual liberty. Every one should be free to dispose of his person, his property, his time, and his reputation as he pleases—but always at his own cost; this qualification of the principle is inseparable from it, the core, as it were, of fis philosophy

The New Harmony experience had convinced Warren that any theory of reform, however perfect or plausible, should be put to the test before being offered to the world as a remedy for existing evils. To this end, therefore, he undertook his first experiment, the Time store.

On the 18th of May 1827, there was unpretentiously opened at the corner of Fifth and Vine streets in Cincinnati a small country store, conducted on a plan new to commerce. It vas the first Equity store, designed to illustrate and practicalize the cost principle, the germ of the cooperative movement of the future. When the advantages of the store became known, it proved to be the most popular mercantile institution in the city. The people called it the Time store because a clock was used by the merchant to determine the amount of compensation for his service in waiting upon the customers. The storekeeper exchanged his time for an equal amount of the time of those who purchased goods from him. The actual cost of the goods bought was paid for in cash, the labor note of the customer was given to the merchant to pay for his service. It ran something after this fashion: “Due to Josiah Warren, thirty minutes in carpenter work.—John [297] Smith.” Here was the application of the principle of labor for labor, the cost principle, in its most primitive form, which was subsequently modified to allow for the different valuations of the various kinds of labor.

The idea of labor notes originated with Robert Owen, but Warren’s application of it was original and proved entirely successful. Though at the beginning the Equity store met with scant encouragement, it was but a short while until it taxed all the reformer’s time and energies. The merchant on the next corner soon found himself without occupation, and requested Warren to explain to him the method of conducting business on the equity plan. The founder of the movement was only too happy to assist his rival to convert his place into a “Time store,” and delighted to see so quickly an instance of what competition could do in enforcing the adoption of more equitable methods of exchange.

Warren’s store was a labor exchange where those who had products to sell could dispose of them, provided the goods were in demand, without having to give the lion’s share as profit to the middleman. It was also a bureau for labor seeking employment, and thus served to direct the reformer’s attention to the long and useless apprenticeships by which the common trades were hedged around. He wished to disprove the need for long terms of industrial servitude, and this desire led to the idea of a cooperative village. Full of enthusiasm for the principles which he was now convinced would solve the deeper economic problems of society, having tried them in regard to the distribution of wealth, he longed to see them applied to its production.

Robert Dale Owen at this period became interested in Warren’s plans, but after much waiting, and a visit to New York in 1830, the Cincinnati reformer decided to prepare, unaided, for a village experiment. He set himself to learn many practical arts, including wagon-building, wood and [298] metal working, printing and type-founding. The first village of Equity was commenced in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and after a two years’ trial was abandoned, owing to the malarial and unhealthful condition of the locality. Many interesting experiments in the industrial and practical education of the young were carried out by Warren, which showed that in this field he was a true pioneer, for it is only to-day that his views are finding realization in the manual training-schools and technical institutions for practical education.

The Peaceful Revolutionist, Warren’s first periodical, appeared in January, 1833, but survived only a few months. It was a four-page weekly of conspicuously neat typography, and was devoted to expositions of the principles of equity. So primitive at the time were his resources, and so marvelous his skill and ingenuity, that the plates from which the paper was printed were cast over the tire of the same stove at which the wife cooked the family meals. The printing-press he used was his own invention, and with his own hands he made type-molds, cast the type and the stereo-plates, built the press, wrote the articles, set them up, and printed off the sheets.

The years prior to 1842 were devoted mainly to mechanical pursuits and printing inventions. About 1840 Warren constructed the first press that was ever used to print newspapers from a roll. The following description of this mechanism is from an editorial which appeared February 28, 1840, in an Evansville paper:

“The first number of the Southwestern Sentinel is the first newspaper probably in the world which was ever printed on a continuous sheet. Our press or printing machinery is the invention of Mr. Josiah Warren, 0f New Harmony. He has brought a series of experiments extending through fine years to a successful close, and this machine, which he calls his speed press, is one of the results.” [299]

Unfortunately the innovation was opposed by the printers, who saw in its labor-saving power a menace to their interests. They deliberately threw the press out of gear at every opportunity, and at length so exasperated the inventor that he came one day to the Sentinel office, had the press hauled away, and deliberately broke it to pieces.

Typographical inventions continued, however, to occupy Warren’s attention. His purpose was to extend his stereotyping inventions to all varieties of printing, illustration, and artistic reproduction. His improvements in this field he termed “universal typography.”

The Indiana Statesman, of New Harmony, under dates of October 4, 1845, and March 7, 1846, contains flattering accounts of the progress and utility of Warren’s inventions. His typographical plates were durable, cheap, and had a smooth, glassy surface, so like stone that the inventor termed them “stone-types.” He claimed that the facility with which illustrations could be got up, the rapidity of stereotyping and printing them, together with the durability of the plates, justified the expectation that they would ultimately supersede woodcuts, steel-plate and copper-plate engraving and printing, and lithography. The process included printing in colors, besides a result similar to what is now known as half-tones.

While it is doubtful if Warren ever received an equivalent for his ingenuity, labor, and outlay on these inventions, at which he worked during the larger part of his life, it is certain that his methods were utilized by others, and the world is accordingly the gainer by his improvements. The processes now in use for the finer class of stereotype work are based upon his discoveries. The latter years of his life were devoted to studies and experiments with a view to perfecting his inventions, and his final results, it is believed, were not made known to the world, nor rendered available when death terminated his labors.

The New Harmony Time store was opened in 1842. At [300] first it encountered strong opposition at the hands of interested rivals, but its beneficial influence was soon felt in a fall of retail prices throughout the surrounding country. Of this, his second store experiment, Warren wrote :

“Whatever may be thought of the hopelessness or the unpopularity of reform movements, I will venture to assert that no institution, political, moral, nor religious, ever assumed a more sudden and extensive popularity than the Time store of New Harmony. But it was principally among the poor, the humble, and the downtrodden. None of those who had been accustomed to lead, none who had anything to lead with, offered the least assistance or aid, nor scarcely sympathy, though they did not attempt to deny the soundness of the principles. . . . When all the stores in the surrounding country had come down in their prices to an equilibrium with the Equity store, the custom naturally flowed back again to them, and the next step was to wind up the Time store and commence a village.”

Warren next turned his ingenuity to the production in 1844 of an original system of music, denominated by him “Mathematical Notation,” designated on scientific principles to accomplish in the representation of harmonic sounds a similar service to that performed by phonography in the representation of the elements of speech. The author printed the bock by his newly perfected universal typography, and, as may still be seen by a copy preserved in the library of the New Harmony Working Men’s Institute, it was a beautiful example of his stereotyping process, reproducing his own handwriting in delicate copper-plate. Dr. Mason, a musical authority of that day, admitted the comprehensiveness and simplicity of Warren’s musical notation, but believed it would be a hopeless undertaking to attempt to supersede the universally accepted system.

About this period Warren received seven thousand dollars [301] for his stereotyping patents, and such a wave of financial prosperity revived his desire to found another Equity village. For this purpose he secured land near New Harmony, but abandoned it for more favorable prospects in Ohio. The village of Utopia was founded by Warren in 1847 about a mile above Claremont, a Fourierist community which had just then come to grief. Unlike the latter, there was no common ownership of property in Warren’s experiments. Each family owned its own lot and house (after it was erected), but the members of the village cooperated in all cases where it was mutually advantageous to do so. Warren’s efforts were for those whose only means was their labor force, and his purpose was to demonstrate that such people, with free access to natural resources, could, by exchanging their labor on equitable terms, by means of labor notes, build their own houses, supply their prime necessities, and attain to comfort and prosperity without dependence on capitalists, or any external authority, for the means of life.

Utopia went on progressing in a quiet way for many years. It was the policy of the settlers to avoid publicity, and to refrain from encouraging outsiders to visit or to join them. One of the pioneers, E. G. Cubberly, in October, 1872, while still residing in his original home in Utopia, wrote: “The labor notes put us into a reciprocating society—the result was, in two years twelve families found themselves with homes who never owned homes before. . . . Labor-capital did it. I built a brick cottage, one-and-a-half stories high, and all the money I paid out was nine dollars and eighty-one cents—all the rest was effected by exchanging labor for labor. Mr. Warren is right, and the way to get back as much labor as we give is by the labor cost prices; money prices, with no principle to guide, have always deceived us.”

It may naturally be asked what became of the village. Why did equity villages not multiply? Why did the pioneers [302] keep from the public as far as possible all information concerning them? To such questions no satisfactory answer in a few words can be given. Owing to the high price of the surrounding land, most of the settlers, after about four years, moved from Utopia into Minnesota, where land was cheap and abundant.

Leaving the scenes of his labors in Ohio and Indiana, Warren in 1850 visited New York and Boston, and, by means of a quiet propaganda, succeeded in around the interest of many earnest people in the individualistic form of cooperation advocated by him. He met the brilliant writer and reformer, Stephen Pearl Andrews, who henceforth became Warren’s most ardent disciple, and the literary exponent of equity. Andrews’ Science of Society, an exposition of the sovereignty of the individual, and cost the limit of price, has probably done more toward calling the attention of independent thinkers and reformers to Warren’s philosophy than anything ever put forth by himself, and is by far the ablest statement of the “principles” which has yet appeared.

As a result of Warren’s activity the Village of Modern Times was founded in 1851. The site was on Long Island, forty miles by railroad from New York City. The soil was considered worthless, but this did not deter the enthusiasts of equity. They came by ones and twos, and gradually began to clear the ground for market-gardens, meanwhile building themselves houses of such pretensions as their limited resources permitted. About a hundred souls had settled on the ground when the New York Tribune began to feature the colony and create a publicity as undesirable to the settle as it proved to be annoying. The newspaper notices brought many visitors, some to stay, mostly ignorant of the ideas on which the village was founded. True to their principles, which allowed equal rights to all in natural opportunities, the pioneers refrained from taking any steps to exclude the newcomers, [303] so long as they did not invade the rights of others. This devotion to principle had, however, its drawbacks, though in the end it proved a self-corrective. One man began to advocate plurality of wives, and started a paper to support. his views. Another believed clothing to be a superfluity and not only personally practised his Adamic vagaries but inflicted them upon his helpless children. A woman who would not have passed for a model of physical perfection, displayed herself in male attire, which gave rise to the newspaper comment that “the women of Modem Times dressed in men’s clothes and looked hideous.” Still another woman had the diet mania so severely that, after trying to live on beans without salt until reduced almost to a skeleton, she died within a year. Whereupon the newspapers declared: “The people of Modem Times are killing themselves with fanatical ideas about food.” These were some of the burdens the real settlers had to bear because they acted on the non-invasive principle, and accorded liberty to do even the silliest things, believing that experience, and the application of personal responsibility in allowing things to be done at each one’s own cost, would work the surest and most effectual cure.

Despite the persistent misrepresentations and the withering slanders to which the colony was subjected during its earlier years, the pioneers prospered. But after reaping so much of the undesirable fruits of notoriety, the name was changed to Brentwood, under which appellation it is still known.

Writing to an English friend in 1857, one of the settlers, Edward Linton, asks: “You have been here, sir, and I ask you, considering the natural obstacles to overcome, if you ever saw greater material success attained in. so short a time by the same number of people without capital, and with only their hands and brains to operate with, under ah the disadvantages of habits formed by a false education and training. . . . And as it regards individual [304] and social happiness and the entire absence of vice and crime, I am confident this settlement can not be equaled. This is, emphatically, the school of life. It is what has been learned here, infinitely more than what has been done, that constitutes what I consider the greatest success of the settlement. What has not been done is, I think, of far more consequence than what has been done.

I would rather that my children would live here and have the advantages of the society and practical lessons taught here, than for them to have what is called an education in the best institutions of learning in the world.”

Linton’s tribute to Warren in the same letter can not be omitted: “But whether I ever live to see the practical realization of the principles or not, here or elsewhere, I never can feel sufficiently grateful to the unostentatious man whose remarkable and peculiar constitution of mind enabled him to discover the most subtle and sublime truths ever made known to man for his self-government and the regulation of his intercourse with his neighbors. In my own person and in my own domestic affairs I have been incalculably benefited.”

Broad avenues, tree-shaded streets, pretty cottages surrounded by strawberry-beds and well-tiled gardens, formed the outward appearance of Modem Times. The occupants were honest, industrious, and had learned to mind their own business, while readily cooperating with their neighbors for mutual advantage. They were free from sectarian dissensions, law-courts, jails, rumshops, prostitutes, and crime. No one acquired wealth save by his own industry. Long afterward the people who lived there during the years that the principles of equity were the only law among citizens, looked back with regret mingled with pleasure on those pioneer days of effort to achieve a higher social ideal.

It should be remembered that the equity villages did [305] not fail in the sense that New Harmony, Brook Farm, and numerous other similar experiments failed. The Modem Timers had no trouble over property or forms of government. Each owned his house and land, and by mutual understanding political or civic authority was dispensed with. None felt responsible for the failure of his neighbors, and only aggressive or invasive action was resented by combined action. The panic of 1857, which in New York City alone threw upward of twenty thousand people suddenly out of work, shattered a manufacturing enterprise that had been successfully begun in Modem Times. Before the effects of the ensuing industrial depression had cleared away, the country was in the throes of civil war, and all hope of success was for the time dissipated.

In July, 1854, while living at Modem Times, Warren began the publication of his Periodical Letters, a record of the movement and further exposition of the principles, which were issued with more or less regularity until the end of 1858. He spent the winter of 1855-’56 visiting his old friends in Ohio and Indiana. After 1860 he returned no more to the Long Island village.

The reformer’s activity declined with advancing age. Several years were spent quietly at Cliftondale, near Boston, and in 1873 he went to reside with his friends, the Heywoods, in their home at Princeton, Massachusetts. Here he wrote and printed his last production, Part III, of the True Civilization series, giving “practical applications” and the “facts and conclusions of forty-seven years’ study and experiments in reform movements through communism to elementary principles found in a direction opposite to and away from communism, but leading directly to all the harmonic results aimed at by communism.” Equitable Commerce, his first book, containing practically all his views, was first published in 1846, and was several times reprinted. [306]

The last months of Warren’s life were passed in Boston at the house of his early friend, Edward Linton, where he was cared for in his last illness by kindly hands. Kate Metcalf, one of the pioneers of Modem Times, nursed him to the end, which came on April 14, 1874.

[1] This chapter is the contribution of Mr. William Bailie, of Boston, who has made a searching study of the life and services of Josiah Warren, and is the best informed authority on the philosophy of that remarkable man.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.