Brentwood: Once a “Modern Times” Utopia

Brentwood–Once a “Modern Times” Utopia. Currency or Labor Note of the City of Modern Times, 1857: “One Hours Labor in Gardening or Eight Pounds of Corn….” (Image from the Modern Times, Brentwood Collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society Library Archives. Copyright © Suffolk County Historical Society. All rights reserved.)

From Positions Defined, by Josiah Warren, Founder of Modern Times
An impression is abroad…that the “Equity movement” is characterised by an unusual latitude in the Marriage relations–I as one, protest against this idea. ‘The sovereignty of every Individual” is as valid a warrant for retaining the present relations, as for changeing them; and it is equally good for refusing to be drawn into any controversies or even conversation on the subject. I find no warrant in my ‘sovereignty’ for invading, disturbing, or offending other people, whatever may be their sentiments or modes of life, while they act only at their own Cost, and would reiterate in the most impressive possible manner that the greatest characteristic of this movement is its “INDIVIDUALITY”–that the persons engaged in it are required to act entirely as INDIVIDUALS–not as a Combination or Organization. That we disclaim entirely, all responsibility for the acts, opinions, or reputations of each other. These principles of Equity are as broad as the universe, embracing every possible diversity of character. I therefore do not look for conformity, and therefore repudiate all combined or partnership responsibilities….               –Village of Modern Times, Aug. 1853

The “free love” utopian colony of Modern Times was founded in 1851 by Josiah Warren, a Boston-born reformer and nonviolent anarchist who advocated for the “sovereignty of the individual.” He purchased over 700 acres of land on the south side of the LIRR tracks in the area that is present-day Brentwood. He laid out streets and advertised for pioneers. The colony of 100 persons settled in the new village. They cleared the land, built log cabins, and planted large gardens that became their chief means of support. In 1857, the population of Modern Times had doubled to 200 colonists.

Accessible via “railway or rainbow,” Modern Times had a lifespan of about one decade. Under Warren’s leadership, it was probably “the most ideal utopia of any other community in the United States, if not the whole world,” according to Verne Dyson. Dishonesty, disorder, and crime were nonexistent; there were no policemen, no prisoners, no judges, no jail. The “Time Store,” a feature of Warren’s economy, worked effectively to provide all of the food, household necessities, and clothing the community needed at cost. The only money circulated in the colony were the labor notes printed by Warren in his print shop; they were not backed by gold or silver but by a specific number of hours of honest labor.

The colony of Modern Times, surrounded by the peaceful wilderness 40 miles east of New York City, seemed to have discovered the magic formula for peace in Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia. But internal and external forces, including the economic panic of 1857 and the Civil War, combined to destroy the colony. Warren lamented that sensational newspaper accounts and troublemakers of various kinds began to invade and disturb the peace at Modern Times:

“One man began to advocate plurality of wives, and published a paper to support his views; another believed clothing to be a superfluity, and not only attempted to practice his Adamic theories in person, but imposed his views upon his hapless children. A woman with an ungainly form displayed herself in public in man’s attire, which gave rise to the newspaper comment: ‘The women dress in men’s clothing and look hideous’….” 

Warren left Modern Times shortly before the name was changed to Brentwood in the troubled Civil War period, somewhat frustrated but faithful to his theories until the end of his life. His last years were spent in Boston and with friends in Princeton, Massachusetts. In the last letter he wrote before his death, Josiah Warren vowed that “a piece of land set apart for each person who desires it [is]…the first step in civilization.”