In 1851 Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews founded Modern Times, a community based on Warren’s ideas of individual sovereignty and equitable commerce. Modern Times quickly grew into a stable and unique village within the Long Island town of Islip. Its marks can still be seen even as its founding principles have been gradually replaced by more conventional ideas.
Josiah Warren was born in Boston in 1798. By 1851, he was an experienced innovator and activist. He made several contributions to printing technology and invented a lard-burning lamp that provided good light using cheaper fuel than tallow. From 1824 to 1827, he lived with his family at Robert Owen’s utopian community, New Harmony, where Warren worked as a music director.
Warren soon realized that New Harmony, run on communitarian principles with Owen in charge, did not provide a solution to economic injustice. Warren did not leave as a reactionary but remained an innovator. He developed his philosophy of individual sovereignty, and advocated individually-held property with an economic program of “equity” or “equitable commerce.”
After leaving New Harmony, Warren opened a new store in Cincinnati. Prices were based on cost with compensation for the storeowner’s time, and labor notes were used as a medium of exchange. The storekeeper agreed to exchange his time for an equal amount of the customer’s time. The system was modified through experience, and began to allow for different valuations of different kinds of labor. Warren’s “Time Store” was very popular and had a major effect on local business. But Warren had his mind on broader changes.
In 1831 Warren established the first “equitable village” with four hundred acres and a few families. The experiment had to be abandoned due to disease, a major problem for new and old communities at the time, but Warren believed that he was onto something. He explained his ideas his publication The Peaceful Revolutionist. In 1847 he established Utopia, a village in Ohio. Individuals traded with each other using labor notes, and in doing so were able to acquire homes and small plots of land despite their previous poverty.
Warren returned to Boston in 1848 and met other reformers, then went to New York City in 1850, where he developed his relationship with the writer and reformer Stephen Pearl Andrews. It was time to demonstrate equity at a new location.
Warren and Andrews purchased land in the town of Islip, New York. They developed 90 acres of their purchase, laying out a grid of streets and dividing blocks into smaller lots that would be sold at cost.
Through labor capital and cooperation, Modern Times pioneers were able to afford homes, some for the first time. By 1854, 37 families were living in Modern Times. In 1857 the octagonal-shaped one-room schoolhouse was opened.
Reporting in the New York Tribune brought attention to the village, and didn’t always bring the expected crowd.
While Modern Times residents were generally non-conformists for their time, some pushed the envelope further than others, including a family of nudists, an advocate of polygamy, and followers of strange diet fads. Warren remarked that “A woman with an ungainly form displayed herself in public in men’s attire, which gave rise to the newspaper comment that ‘the women of Modern Times dressed in men’s clothes and looked hideous.’”
True to their principles of individual sovereignty, residents were largely tolerant of what they considered odd as long as their neighbors did not invade the rights of others.The community’s tolerance, and probably the money to be made in sensational reporting, led Modern Times to be widely viewed as a den of sin and dishonesty. The prevalence of a casual view toward marriage and non-interference in personal relationships contributed to outside disdain.
In 1864, Modern Times residents voted to change name of the town to Brentwood, which is the name of the area today. William Bailie contends that the pioneers continued to prosper but “often let the statement go forth that the experiment had come to an end in order to escape the interminable annoyance of sensational press reports and equally obnoxious visiting cranks.”
One goal of Modern Times was to demonstrate on a small scale what could be done if the principles of equity and individual sovereignty were applied on a large scale. In this sense, Modern Times was a failure as a public relations project, but it was not a failure as a community. It was an attractive place to escape the control of capital and conformity.
In 1857, a resident praised Modern Times in a letter to an English friend.
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 all the disadvantages of habits formed by a false education and training…. And as it regards individual and social happiness and the entire absence of vice and crime, I am confident this settlement cannot be equalled.
A visitor’s account of Modern Times reveals a strong combination of individualism and community spirit.
No two persons were expected to dress alike, think alike, or act alike; nothing was in such disrepute as sameness, nothing more applauded than variety, no fault more venial than eccentricity….
There was, too, an easy, cordial relation of one with another, a frankness and simplicity of intercourse, which gave assurance that they were held together by a genuine attraction and sustained by mutual sympathy.
Bailie writes that Modern Times moved away from Warren’s ideas mainly due to the scarcity of employment other than agriculture, and the reluctance of the outside community to adopt its economic principles.
Capital was needed to start factories for the manufacture of articles for which there was a demand in the outside world. The pioneers had but little resources, and the labor-note currency, while of great service amongst themselves, could not help them in transactions with those who neither understood the principle nor accepted the practice of Equitable Commerce.
The Panic of 1857 and the changes wrought by the Civil War contributed to the gradual dissolving of the community’s identity.
George Woodcock writes that Modern Times “maintained its mutualist character for at least two decades, eventually turning, like Utopia, into a more or less conventional village with cooperative tendencies.”
The schoolhouse closed in 1907 and became a private residence.
In 1989 the schoolhouse was moved to a spot on the school district property, and locals are making efforts to restore the structure.
Exactly how equitable commerce could have worked on a regional or broader scale is a good question. Numerous time-based currencies have come, and many have gone, since the 1830s. Warren would certainly favor innovation and peaceful competition to find the best way, as he did when he ran the Time Store. The solution could not be imposed by force, but had to be freely adopted and adapted by individuals who recognized it to be in their interest.
Josiah Warren wrote about social and economic philosophy until his death in 1874. He was an innovator who learned through experience and put his ideas into practice for refinement and demonstration. The peaceful revolutionist influenced a number of American reformers and rebels, and was considered a forefather of individualist anarchism.
Stephen Pearl Andrews continued his involvement in reform movements until his death in 1886. Promoting Warren’s ideas was one of his numerous contributions to nineteenth-century politics.
In a way Modern Times symbolizes an ideal of America as a somewhat wild land of opportunity where pioneers – innovators, people willing to build new lives for themselves and their neighbors – have the freedom to experiment. It is of course an ideal that was not fulfilled on a wide scale, an ideal that coexisted with slavery, speculation, sexism, cronyism, and conquest. But it is a promise that can bring hope to a land enclosed and foreclosed upon, a promise that Warren, Andrews, and many Modern Times residents worked to fulfill, a promise that today’s innovators may deliver to more people.
It is an ideal that shines through stories found along the road.
Accounts of Modern Times are quoted from Bailie, Josiah Warren, Chapter 8.
The Josiah Warren Project at Crispin Sartwell’s website is an excellent place to begin research on Josiah Warren.
“A Message From the Brentwood Historical Society.” Brentwood Historical Society.
“Andrews Biographical Information.” Anarchy Archives. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bright/andrews/SPAbio.html
Bailie, William. Josiah Warren: The First American Anarchist. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1906. Online at Anarchy Archives.
Modern Times history from Chapter 8, “Modern Times”; Background info from Chapters 1, 2, and 10.
Berger, Jay. “Brentwood History Trail Guide,” Brentwood Public Library.
Brentwood Public Library, history room, Visited February 18, 2013.
Maloney, Cory, Discussion with author, February 18, 2013.
Projects, Brentwood Historical Society.
Sartwell, Crispin. “Timeline of Josiah Warren’s Life.” The Josiah Warren Project.
“Today in History: August 24, The Panic of 1857.” American Memory. The Library of Congress.
Warren, Josiah. “Modern Education,” 1861. Josiah Warren Project.
Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004. Pages 391-394; quoted from 393.
Anarchy Archives (first Josiah Warren image)
Brentwood Historical Society (old photos of school building)
Helen Nayfeld (photos of current Brentwood)
Josiah Warren Project (Labor Note, Josiah Warren)
Molinari Institute (Stephen Pearl Andrews)