George Ripley and his wife, Sophia, organized Brook Farm at West Roxbury, near Boston, in April 1841 in order to (in his words) “establish a mode of life which shall combine the enchantments of poetry with the facts of daily experience.” The Ripleys believed that society at large could be changed if it had a model to follow, and they proposed to create a communal experiment in which all were equal, each contributing his or her own specialty to the development of the group.
The Ripleys’ attempt to bring people of all social classes together to work, play, and learn in natural surroundings was successful for a time, but Brook Farm was severely undercapitalized from the start, situated on land not particularly suitable for farming, too removed from the nearest railway line to inexpensively ship the products it made to Boston to compete in the marketplace, and organized and led by people trained in the humanities rather than farming or business. Nevertheless, it had an excellent school that provided its sole dependable source of income; published a regular newspaper, The Harbinger, beginning in 1845; and served as inspiration for The Blithedale Romance (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who resided there for six months in 1841.
Two additional reasons stand out for Brook Farm’s failure: its change in 1845 to a Phalanx (based on an organizational model copied from French socialist Charles Fourier) brought about a degree of regimentation at odds with the Transcendentalists’ belief in individual freedom; and its Phalanstery, a large dormitory structure, burned down in 1846 while under construction for an uninsured loss of $7,000. Brook Farm collapsed in 1847.
The subsequent history of the land occupied by the Brook Farm community is not inspiring. For a short time in the 1850s it was used as an almshouse. Between May and July 1861 it served as Camp Andrew, a training ground for soldiers during the Civil War. The Martin Luther Orphan’s Home was established in 1872 and the Gethsemane Cemetery was founded there in 1873. Although the Orphan Home closed in 1943, it reopened in 1948 as a residential treatment center and school managed by the Lutheran Services Association until 1974. In 1977, Brook Farm was designated a Boston Landmark, thwarting developers who had eyed the site, which comprised what has since been described as “179 acres of rolling fields, woodlands and wetlands.” The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation acquired Brook Farm—now a National Historic Landmark—in 1988.
Collecting Brook Farm has proved challenging. Its manuscript records are at the Massachusetts Historical Society, so collectors have had to focus on letters and books by participants and visitors describing the community. Unlike authors, who publish many individual works, Brook Farm’s publications are collective in nature: Constitution of the Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education (1844); Constitution of the Brook Farm Phalanx (1845); and issues of The Harbinger (1845-1849), especially those actually published at Brook Farm (June 1845-October 1847). Occasionally a Brook Farm pewter whale-oil lamp will come on the market, or a painted lampshade, firescreen, or some other domestic product made by women for sale in Boston.
65. The Harbinger, Devoted to Social and Political Progress . . . Vol. I. Published by the Brook Farm Phalanx (New York: Burgess, Stringer, and Company; Boston: Redding and Company, 1845).
66. George Ripley. Autograph letter, initialed, to John Sullivan Dwight, November 4, 1847.
67. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Autograph letter, signed, to “My dear Charles” [Charles King Newcomb], Concord, August 16, 1842.