These workers at the Oneida Community Ltd. plant in Niagara Falls were photographed in the summer of 1909. The Oneida plant, located "on the brink of the Great Gorge," was built in 1877, according to the 1907 Niagara Falls News, an almanac of businesses of the day.
"While the exploitation of the great waterpower of Niagara Falls was in its infancy, valuable concessions were offered to the Community to locate on what is known as the Canal Basin," according to the News, including "the grant of 300 horse power at a nominal rate, an advantage that has since enabled these busy workers to manufacture at minimum cost."
The Oneida Community Ltd. had its roots in the utopian Oneida Community, formed in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes on land located between Utica and Syracuse.
Noyes' philosophy was called Perfectionism, a form of Christianity in which members work for self-perfection and share everything communally. Monogamy was abolished, and children were raised communally from the age of 2 until 12. The group also supported gender equality, social consciousness and a fundamental belief in the dignity of work.
Like the Shakers, another utopian group, the Oneida Community began a number of businesses and sold their goods to the outside world. The commune itself lasted only until 1879, when it split into two factions. Members transformed the community's businesses into a joint-stock company, the Oneida Community Ltd., which was owned and operated by former members.
In 1882, the Niagara Falls, N.Y., factory was the site of fruit-packing and silverware manufacture. That year, in his guidebook, "A Complete Record of Niagara Falls and Vicinage," Thomas Holder wrote, "The Silver Plating Works are contained in a handsome stone and brick structure, located on the bank of the Niagara River."
Holder described the three-story main building, brickwork above two stories of solid stone masonry, with an area of 100 by 40 feet, as "an imposing piece of industrial architecture." A three-story wing addition covered 120 by 38 feet, he wrote, and a new, smaller building nearby was the headquarters of the fruit-canning operation.
At the time Holder described its operations, the plant employed 170 people "at a monthly outlay for wages alone at $3,500, although it is believed that the near future will see a much more extended system of operation in full work here."
In 1889, officials of the Oneida Community, Ltd., opened negotiations with Canadian officials to build a plant in Niagara Falls, Ont., "similar to the one in this village, the product of which would be used to supply the Canadian market with their goods," and soon afterward a plant was built across the river to manufacture chains and steel animal traps.
Labor unrest wracked the Niagara Falls, N.Y., plant in the 1890s, starting with a small strike in 1893 and culminating with months of strife in 1899. In 1899, members of the local metal polisher's union were discharged and replaced with non-union workers, according to news reports of the day, and Pierre B. Noyes, a descendant of John Humphrey Noyes who was "superintendent of the works and a resident of Canada" was arrested in early July on charges of "intimidating the men under him."
The strife was settled later that year.
In 1907, according to the Niagara Falls News, the New York Oneida plant was prospering, with "500 expert workers employed in the plant, and the payroll amounts to more than $250,000 a year."
At that time, the News said, "The plant at Niagara Falls is devoted exclusively to the manufacture of silver-plated ware and its capacity is more than 50,000 pieces a day. Many grades of silverware are made, but special attention is given to 'Community Silver,' -- now generally recognized as the best silver plated ware made."
In 1907, the Oneida Community had factories devoted to trap and chain making, fruit-packing and silk spinning in Oneida, N.Y., and in Sherill, N.Y. The Niagara Falls, N.Y., plant was the site of silverware manufacture, while the plant in Niagara Falls, Ont., made steel chains.
The Niagara Falls, Ont., Oneida plant long outlived its American counterpart, whose exact date of closing is not even mentioned in the official company history.
The former Maple Leaf Village tower, which stands at the Canadian end of the Rainbow Bridge and now advertises Casino Niagara, was the Oneida tower from 1964 to 1979, with two observation decks crowned by the company name. In 1979, despite construction at the foot of the 341-foot-tall tower, 620,000 people rode its high-speed elevators to the top to see the sights.
The Canadian plant was reporting profits gaining into the 1970s, and a new Oneida building was constructed in 1973. One of the historic Canadian plants was demolished in 1977.
On March 31, 1999, Oneida announced that it would close its manufacturing facility in Niagara Falls, Ont., moving production to company facilities in New York state and in Mexico.
Oneida Ltd. still maintains a local presence with its ownership of Buffalo China, which was founded in 1901.
Buffalo China was purchased in 1983 by Oneida, which is now the world's largest flatware manufacturer and largest supplier of dinnerware to the food-service industry. Oneida now has about 4,500 employees worldwide and annual sales that approached $466 million last fiscal year.