On a day when TV news programs carry images of 170 million Americans storming shopping malls in a frenzy of consumerism, here’s an account of a different kind of economic system, as seen through the admittedly idiosyncratic eyes of a 19th century Mormon man. Part 1 focuses on what we learn of the United Order through the diary of Ned Desaules; Part 2 emphasizes the personality of this crusty yet endearing brother:
The United Order community of Kingston, Utah, was never very large, beginning in 1877 with only eight families. Yet there was a surprising degree of diversity within that small group:
– Most were English immigrants or Yankees of English descent, but there was one French-speaking Swiss member.
– Most were involved in polygamous marriage, but there was one life-long bachelor.
– Most were marginally literate, but there was one man who amassed a sizeable library and brought a microscope, a telescope, mathematical instruments, and newspapers from around the world into the community.
– Most were farmers, but there was one skilled craftsman who could build anything from a gristmill to farm equipment to fine furniture.
In fact, the Swiss, the bachelor, the scholar, and the craftsman were one man: Henri Edouard Desaules, or â€œNedâ€ as he was known in the community. Because he was so different from his neighbors, he felt himself â€œa stranger among strangers, people very uncongenial to me in feelings, thoughts and habits. And no doubt I am very uncongenial to others.â€ This lonely man expressed his candid opinions of his neighbors in letters to the editor of the Salt Lake newspaper, and in his diary and account book. These documents provide a refreshingly personal picture of daily life in one United Order community.
The official records of Kingston indicate only that the members covenanted to follow the standard rules of United Order communities; that is, to â€œbecome one in earthly thingsâ€ by â€œconsecrat[ing them]selves & all [they] possess unto the Lordâ€. Ned sheds light on how that consecration was effected on a day-to-day basis.
As a single man without a family, Ned was lowest in priority for private quarters. He lived in a single room in homes occupied by others, a circumstance that caused him no small amount of grief when he had inadequate storage for his reading materials and when his carpentry tools were borrowed without permission and then lost. Ned lived this way for years, until he was able to build himself a 10′ x 15′ cabin. Perhaps something of United Order living conditions can be deduced in Nedâ€™s relief in entering his own home: â€œAt last I am again a la maison, my humble but quiet maisonnette.â€
In its earliest days, the community ate in a single large dining room; when that proved impractical, smaller dining units were established where two or three families ate together. Memoirs of former members recall the dining experience fondly, reporting how organized the women were in preparing, serving, and cleaning up, how many pies were needed for a meal, how tasty the food was. Nedâ€™s contemporary account, though, reveals that the food was not always of the highest quality or quantity. Food was sometimes scarce, and when wheat could not be had, flour was made from whatever was at hand â€“ even hops â€“ which once caused Ned to go on strike: â€œIn the morning was not satisfied with my breakfast, as they were giving hop bread, wich I could not stand. I went to bed sick with anger & di[s]gust. [D]id not work all day. [I]n the Evening … I met Wm King, & complained to him about the bread. [H]e said he would fix it in the morning. But I staid home the next day also.â€
Ned frequently evaluated the cooking in the various homes in which he boarded: â€œ[T]hey give me such poor bread most of the time that I feel shabbily treated.â€ â€œI feel a little sick today, my grub is most of the time very poor & the bread darned hard.â€ â€œThey have the cussedest & poorest cooking I ever had in my life nearly.â€ Ned did approve of the baking of two women, though, Mary Ann King and Sarah Ann Morrill: â€œI went to [S]ister Morrill for my bread and milk. She asked me how I was this morning. I answered her that I felt wicked. She gave me some doughnuts.â€ Finally, he arranged with Sister King to furnish him with all his bread, which seemed to solve his problem with the meals.
Communications between the Orderâ€™s leaders and its members were often incomplete, resulting in some nasty misunderstandings. Ned wrote: â€œA wrong was committed to day by Bishop Wm. King & his brother Edwin. The occasion was this. [T]hey have an old man working for them named Davis. [H]e had for a year or so a house to live in. But this morning Wm. & Edwin King without telling the old man any thing or giving him notice went to tear the house down thus shamefully treating an old man who had been serving the family faithfully for many years. Shame on them. May the Lord of Heaven give them as they have done. Amen.â€ Ned felt free to scold the bishop for his actions: â€œI also spoke to Bishop King about the way brother Daives had been treated by having his house pulled down … He gave me some explanations saying among other things that it was only temporary … So after all I let that go.â€
Ned was responsible for the Orderâ€™s carpentry department, where he supervised the building of the town virtually from scratch. He managed the labor of others who did much of the rough carpentry, but all the more skilled tasks fell to Ned directly. He was the only community member experienced in building window sashes and hanging doors, for instance. The communityâ€™s earliest furniture was rather rough, trestle tables and the like, but as the months went on Ned had the skill and was able to spare the time to build more elaborate pieces.
Nedâ€™s record of work performed reveals much about the economic life of the United Order at Kingston, whose whole reason for being was, after all, an economic experiment in a spiritual setting. Although little cash changed hands at Kingston during the first few years, a dollar value was placed on everything â€“ work performed for the community was credited on its books in dollars and cents; the value of board and clothing was deducted. Personal furnishings could be commissioned from the communityâ€™s carpenter; Ned was credited and other members debited for the value of labor and materials.
There seems to have been a certain amount of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses among community members regarding their furniture, or perhaps it was merely that members were unaware of the possibilities until they saw what their neighbors had. In any case, Nedâ€™s commissions came in streaks. Immediately after building a milk cupboard or clothes box or rolling pin or desk for one person, he was besieged by orders for identical items from other community members.
It is interesting to note that the women in the Order conducted their own business in these matters, every bit as much as their husbands did â€“ a woman would request, say, a pantry cupboard, and would negotiate its price to be paid from the value of her baking, sewing, or laundry services, and with milk and eggs from the animals she tended. It was this freedom that allowed Ned to adjust his food supply until it was of a quality he could tolerate. Sometimes, though, satisfactory agreements still could not be made. At one point, he wrote: â€œI have been cooking my own bread, & have also been making my own pies, as I found that I had to pay too much to women who were trying to earn more by the hour than I did myself. They are all infernally greedy.â€
This greed, or the perception of it, eventually led to the dissolution of the Order. Before that point was reached, however, the community attempted a compromise between the pure United Order and complete free enterprise. While still acting as the Orderâ€™s carpenter, for instance, Ned acted as a small-time peddler, specializing in sewing notions and academic supplies such as writing paper and colored inks. (His diary, incidentally, is a kaleidoscope of his wares â€“ it is written in purple and blue and green and pink and brown and gold and red.) He imported multiple copies of small art prints and story-filled magazines, which he sold to women eager to brighten their homes and to young people hungry for vicarious adventure. These items were paid for in an eclectic mix of cash, eggs, personal services, postage stamps, and IOUs.
Although I think he would have gruffly denied it, Ned seems to have been fond of his neighborâ€™s children. His accounts, always figured to the penny, very often recorded disbursements of nickels and dimes to children. Sometimes the gifts would be to unnamed children, but with a frequency that surprises me, he often named them. He knew who they were, and who their parents were.
And while he was sure his neighbors thought of him as â€œa queer old crankâ€ and that they even perhaps feared him, I donâ€™t think this was true for the children. Frightened children would not have approached him for candy money, nor would they have visited him as often as they did: â€œYesterday two little boys … came in to get some blocks.â€ And: â€œTwo of Straw[â€™s] little boys came into the shop this morning & asked me a little piece of lumber and the use of some tools to mend a boyâ€™s waggon. I let them have it, but they staid so long in the shop that I got mad.â€ And: â€œSister Morrill asked me to let Ada have a sheet of paper for three eggs. I let her have five sheets. Emma came in also in the afternoon & gave me three eggs for some more paper. I gave her four sheets. It is worth more than the eggs but as I do not recollect the price I let them have more out of good will & kindness.â€
Sometimes, too, Ned was hired by the parents to build items for their children: â€œI made a doll bedstead for Ephraim[â€™s] little girl & am to be paid one dollar for it.â€
These incidents suggest that children in the United Order had toys, had free time, and even had some tiny economic participation.
(To be continued)