Brook Farm

The Transcendental Club
Brook Farm with Rainbow (1845) Josiah Wolcott

Brook Farm was the brain child of George Ripley, a member of the Transcendental Club. The Transcendental Club was inspired by the philosophical thought of Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential transcendental philosophers. Many aspects of the club were also taken from German Transcendental thought, which was translated by Schelling and Coleridge.

One of the first notable productions of the club was a book titled Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature. This book was contained in fourteen volumes and edited by George Ripley, who would later found Brook Farm. While the book was essentially made by the Transcendental Club, it came into existence before the club had even been formed.

In the United States, there was an attack on Unitarian and Trinitarian churches. In response to these philosophical attacks several intellectuals began to meet in Boston. Notable members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fredrick Henry Hedge, and George Ripley. The members preferred to call their group “The Symposium”, but its real name was Hedge’s Club. This was due to the fact that the group usually met when he made the long trip to Boston. While Hedge is usually overlooked as an influential member, he was actually quite important in the beginning stages of the group. He was also asked to be the editor of the club’s periodical The Dial, which published its first edition in 1840.

The first meeting of the Hedge’s club, or the Transcendental Club, was held on September 8, 1836. The first meetings focused on the issues surrounding the Unitarian Church. The later meetings would eventually follow suite by discussing theological issues such as Revelation, Inspiration, Providence, the Law, and the Truth; however, these meetings proved to not be enough for George Ripley.

George Ripley
George Ripley
ley wanted to put all of their theological discussions into practice and resigned in 1840 to start Brook Farm. His motivation to leave the club was his dissatisfaction with his own attitude towards the office of ministry. This effort to put action to the club’s discussions was not met well with the group. Hawthorne and Dwight were the only two original members of the club to follow Ripley. The main reason why the others in the original group did not follow was because they were dissatisfied with practical solutions and only accepted thoughts. The Dial even went against the project by saying, “…all failed to see that the Reform of Reforms must be accomplished without means.”

While Brook Farm was a transcendental movement, it was also a sociological experiment. It lacked much of the rigid structure that would probably be necessary for it’s success. The members wanted the people to still be in charge of themselves, while living under transcendental ideals. Charles Lane said in The Dial, “It is not a community; it is not truly an association; it is merely an aggregation of persons, and lacks that oneness of spirit which is probably needful to make it of help and lasting value to mankinds.”

Brook Farm
The Organization
Location of Brook Farm in Massachusetts
Location of Brook Farm in Massachusetts

In the summer of 1840 the Ripleys found a milk farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. While the soil of the farm did not appear to be fertile, the nearby meadows and pastures hinted at fertile soil. Excited by the idea that he had finally dis​covered land on which to start his project, Ripley went ahead and began recording the goal of the farm. He wanted “to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor han now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possibly, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor adapted to their tastes and talents, and secureing them to the fruits of their industry; to do away with the necessity of menial services by opening the benefits of education and the profits whose relations with each other would permit a more wholesome and simple life than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.” Ripley even wrote his goals to Emerson, “we propose to take a small tract of land which, under skilful husbandry, uniting the garden and the farm, will be adequate to the subsistence of families, and to connect with this a school or college, in which the most complete instruction shall be given, from the first rudiments to the highest culture.”

Ripley estimated that it would cost about $30,000 to start the farm. By the winter of 1840 he had received what he believed to be sufficient funds and purchased the 170 acre farm. By April of 1841 the Ripleys and fifteen others including Hawthorne moved to the farm. Around September 1841 the “Articles of Association” were written, stocks sold, and officers of the Institute were elected. Ripley was one of the officers in charge of General Direction, Direction of Agriculture, and Direction of Education; while Hawthorne of one of the officers in charge of Direction of Finances.

Due to financial issues the farm changed hands many times until 1855 when member Reverend James Freeman Clarke purchased it. He was the last of the members to own the farm. After he lost the farm to G.P. Burkhardt, it was deeded to the “Association of the Evangelical Lutheran Church for Works of Mercy”.

The Buildings and Grounds
"The Hive"
"The Hive"

The farm house was dubbed “The Hive” by the members of the farm as it was the center of the farm. It served as a place of meeting, eating, and sleep for some. It always was the main gathering place for the members. It probably served as a good place to start the mornings due to it facing eastward. Those who dwelt in the farm could eat breakfast and rise with the sun to start their day of work.

To the south of “The Hive” was a barn. It also faced to the east.

Across the street from the farm was a house that was used as the school. It was called “The Nest”. “The Nest” doubled as living quarters for the teachers and pupils at night.

In 1842 the colony outgrew its housing and built a house on the highest point of land. This house was very poorly constructed and carried sound very well. What went on in one room could be heard throughout the entire house. It was called “Eyrie” by the colonists.

“The Cottage” was built after the “Eyrie”. This multifunctional building served as lodging and a school house. It even was used for a brief stint as a hospital during an outbreak of smallpox.

“The Pilgrim House” was built shortly after the “Eyrie”. It was located south of “The Cottage”. It served as the editorial office for the colony’s literary publication “The Harbinger”. This edifice was mostly used for lodging however.

A workshop was built after “The Pilgrim House”. It was northwest of “The Hive”. It had an engine that supplied power to machinery. Part of that machinery was used to print “The Harbinger” as its printing office was located within the workshop. If there was no other room in the farm, visitors would be put here to sleep.

A garden was located behind the cottage, but after a few months the colonists decided that a garden was simply not enough. The construction of a green house was undertaken, but due to financial issues was unable to be completed for some time.

In the summer of 1844 a unitary building or the Phalanstery was started. The Phalanstery was located in front of “Eyrie” parallel with the town road. The building was meant to supersede “The Hive” as a place of public gathering. The Phalanstery was to contain parlors for reading, a reception room, a general assembly hall, a dining hall which was capable of seating over 300 people, and a kitchen and bakery. Due to a lack of finances the Phalanstery’s construction was slowed. One night in 1846, when the Phalanstery was practically completed, a fire broke out and burned the entire building down. It was determined that the fire originated from a poorly placed fireplace in the basement of the building. This was the last major building to be erected at the farm.

The Industries
Brook Farm was a very simple idea. Like many simple ideas, it had a simple take on how to financially provide for itself. Initially there were only three expected sources of revenue: new members coming with previously owned property, outsiders who would buy stock from the Association as an investment, and tuition/rent from pupils and boarders. Unfortunately this simple idea could not cover the complex tax of successfully raising revenue.

Farming proved to be harder than previously thought. While there was a large output of hay, the quality of the product was so poor that it had little to no practical value. While items like hay were poorly produced, other items such as milk and vegetables were made very well. They were of excellent quality; however, the need of the community usually outweighed the production. This left the farm with little to nothing to sell at external markets.
Another factor that led to less than desirable profits was the length of the work day. In the early stages of the farm, the work day in the summer was determined to be only ten hours long. While this was excellent to keep the workers from getting burned out, it would have behooved the colony to have longer work days during the harvesting season.

The work day wasn’t the only issue the farm’s production faced. Whenever the colony needed more farming land the colonists had to dig up grass and clear out underbrush. For the colonists to successfully do this they needed man power and manure. Unfortunately the colony did not produce manure or have enough money to purchase the necessary manure to properly fertilize the ground. Two events epitomize the colonies lack of resources.

The colonists at one point decided to start a tree nursery. After a great cost of financial resources and man power the nursery had been built; however, the colony lacked the necessary finances and man power to properly sustain the nursery, so the project failed.

The other example of failure occurred when the colonists decided to make a flower garden. After much preparation for the garden, they discovered that the soil was nothing like what was needed to sustain flower life. Due to a lack of money the colonists were unable to purchase manure and had to abandon their flower garden.

Eventually the colony tried to build a green house. Once again a lack of money prevented the green house from being built in a timely manner. It was delayed for so long that by the time the Association and essentially Brook Farm had dissolved, the green house had not paid for itself.

While there was generally a lack of funds, there was never a lack of talented workers within Brook Farm. There was an abundance of shoe workers who were rarely overworked and generally made a good profit. There were plenty of printers to work on the literary publication “The Harbinger” as well. There was also a very large amount of carpenters; however, due to a lack of lumber their profession suffered. The distance from Boston was so great that the lumber usually received was still wet. Due to the large number of building projects and repairs, the carpenters were unable to let the wood properly dry, resulting in many of their structures and repairs shrinking in the heat.

According to the constitution written up by the founders the industries were divided into three categories: Agricultural, Mechanical, and Domestic. All the different groups of workers fell under one of these categories with the exception of the education group. Despite these clear distinctions in industries, there was a strong emphasis placed on interchangeableness of workers. If a carpenter was tired of working with wood, then he could become a farmer or a printer.

Household Work
There was a good deal of household work to be done at Brook Farm, but it all boiled down to the same activities. Life for the young women became very monotonous as their days were spent cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry.
Originally the farm only had one cook, but as the farm grew so did the need for more cooks. More women began to be placed amongst the ranks of cooks. The food that was prepared was rather plain. They rarely had fresh meat and always had pork and beans on Sundays. Temperance was a rule with food, but with alcohol it was merely a principle. Even tobacco was frowned upon. Only three members are recorded as smokers. Despite the monotony of the food, there was also a group of vegetarians who in addition to abstaining to meat also denied themselves coffee and tea.

Despite the household work being designated for the young women, young men also found themselves volunteering to do laundry. Due to the lack of modern machinery, wringing out clothes and hanging them to dry was a tiring task. It was also a chance for young men to make themselves seem desirable to the young women.

Amusements and Customs
The enjoyment of the colonists was looked upon very seriously at Brook Farm. It was regular practice for the Associates to encourage the colonists to participate in enjoyable activities after dinner or on Sundays. During the spring, summer, and fall seasons activities such as taking walks, going for picnics, boating on the Charles River, and expeditions to the distant woods surrounding Turtle Pond were common place. These activities usually took place on Sundays after the colonists return from church. Due to the fact that the colonists walked to a church in either West Roxbury or Boston Sunday activities took place solely in the afternoons.

During the winter there were other activities which the colonists occupied themselves. Many indoor activities, such as reading clubs, plays and occasionally cards, would keep the colonists having fun while saving them from the cold weather. If a colonist felt so inclined to be outdoors in the snow, then he could partake in sledding and skating in place of boating.

One activity that breached the seasonal barrier was dancing. Usually about a dozen younger colonists would finish cleaning the dishes from their dinner, then meet at “The Cottage” for about an hour or so to dance. This was one of the only activities that colonists of every age would enjoy throughout the entire year.

The School
The school was Brook farms immediate source of income, and during times of hardship it was the only source of income. The creation of the school was absolutely necessary to complete the vision of the transcendental society that was Brook Farms. Without any form of intellectual development, it would have merely been just another utopia colony attempt.

In the first two years of the school’s existence all of the studies were based around personal responsibility. Students were always expected to work only one or two hours a day, and the rest of their days were to be spent at their leisure. Many students found that they hated the requirement of work at the start; however, after a while it seemed to grow on the pupils. Many of the students would partake in eight to ten hour days of manual labor, and then spend their evenings studying. This created a large sense of maturity among the students. This development left Harvard College to suggest that Brook Farm was a fitting place for men who wanted to follow extra-collegiate interests in the seclusion of the country life.

With the creation of the school there was an infant school for children under the age of six and a primary school for children under the age of ten. Miss Marianne Ripley was the head of the primary school, and she saw that it prepared pupils for more advanced college courses if they so chose to take them.

The additional courses were always optional and included subjects such as Latin, Greek, German, moral philosophy, botany, and mathematics. Both moral philosophy and mathematics were taught by Mrs. Ripley. There were also courses in theoretical and practical agriculture.

The arts were also greatly encouraged at Brook Farm. There was a singing class, an instrumental music class, a dancing class, and a drawing class.

The school was the most successful part of Brook Farm. By it’s second year of existence it had accumulated thirty boys and girls.

The Closing Period
There were two things that defined the final days of Brook Farm. The first, The Harbinger, was the literary publication of the farm. It published the ideas of Brook Farm. In many ways, The Harbinger was the successor to The Dial. It’s conception came after the death of The Dial, and it shared many of the same writers; however, it lacked much of what made The Dial successful.

The Harbinger lacked an elegant look. One page only contained three articles, and the actual material and design of the publication was plain and without elegance. It also lacked advertising which had a negative effect on the farm.

One of the main goals of the publication was to raise revenue for the farm; however, more often than not, its writers sacrificed this goal and merely advocated the ideas of the Association. Even Ripley, who was one of the biggest writers for The Harbinger, failed to see that it was not fulfilling its financial purpose.

The other factor in the final days of Brook Farm was the concept of Fourierism. Albert Brisbane reintroduced the ideas of Charles Fourier to the leaders of Brook Farm. The leaders who had participated in The Dial were already semi-familiar with Fourier’s ideas as they had published them in The Dial.

Fourierism was a popular idea among the farm’s leaders, and eventually it crept into the governing document of the farm, the Phalanx. It is speculated by some that this may have been the cause of Brook Farm’s demise.


Brook Farm was the first secular utopian community to be established in New England, but is one of many utopian communities during the nineteenth-century. George Ripley's experiment gains much of its importance to social history through the many intellects that participated in Brook Farm such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, John S. Dwight, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Its faliure to survive shows that without proper financial support or guidance, no organization, no matter how well conceived, will fail.

The result of a short survey that 40 people participated in:
Yes / No
1) Do you know anything about Brooks Farm?
72.5% / 27.5%
2) Do you know who George Ripley is?
60% / 40%
3) Do you know what Transcendentalism is?
77.5% / 22.5%
4) Do you believe in the idea of Transcendentalism ?
45% / 55%
5) Would you ever live in a Utopian society, like that of Brook Farm?
35% / 65%
6) Can a Utopian society ever exist?
70% / 30%
Most of the people questioned were students at Baylor, with a mix of different interests, religions and majors.

Delano, Sterling F. Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Swift, Lindsay. Brook Farm: Its Members, Scholars, and Visitors. New York: The Macmillian Company, 1990

Cooke, George Willis. “George Ripley”. 2009.
Gordon, Jessica. “Transcendental Ideas: Social Reform, History of Brook Farm”.
Massachusetts Historical Society. “Massachusetts Historical Review Volume 8, 2006”. 2010.
“The Brook Farm Community”.