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Helicon Home Colony

"In what way then did it differ from a boarding house, you ask.  And I answer, in almost every way. . . . When you came home at night instead of sitting down to a grumpy boardinghouse table surrounded by the usual boardinghouse types, you ate your dinner seated between a Socialist and a Single Tax man, the one perhaps a college professor, the other a carpenter, or perhaps at the elbow of an aspiring young writer, or beside an artist who was getting ready to startle the world."

                                                                                                       Edith Summers Kelley, "Helicon Hall: An Experiment in Living"                         

Margaret Ann Brown. "Not Your Usual Boardinghouse Types: Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Home Colony, 1906-1907.”  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, George Washington University, 1993.

Dissertation Contents:

  •      Acknowledgements

  •      Abstract

  •      List of Illustrations

  •      Preface

  •      Chapter 1: Colony Roots: Reconciling Art and Responsibility

  •      Chapter 2: Colony Proposal and Initial Organization

  •      Life at Helicon Home Colony, October 1906-March 16, 1907

  •      Helicon Home Colony Destruction and Its Aftermath

  •      Helicon Home colony's Place in Communitarian History

  •      Appendix:  Helicon Home Colony Residents (Prosopography)

  •      Selected Bibliography

In October 1906 Upton Sinclair and twenty-three adults and children established Helicon Home Colony in Englewood, New Jersey as an experiment in "cooperative distribution."  The purpose of this study was to reconstruct the history of the colony and to appraise its impact on the lives of the individuals involved as well as to provide a missing piece in the history of American communes.   


Pledged to solving "problems in domestic economy," the colony based its organization on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's critique of the isolated home.  Colonists lived together in a former boys school and hired servants to handle cooking, laundry, and cleaning, striving to treat their employees as professionals and equals.  With the exception of the mothers who jointly cared for the children, most members did not work for the colony.  Their ultimate goal was to build individual kitchenless cottages on the Englewood property.

For five months more than seventy-five men, women, and children made Helicon their home for varying lengths of time.  Their efforts received wide press coverage and attracted the attention of William James and John Dewey in addition to numerous curiosity-seekers.  On March 16, 1907 a fire destroyed the main building, and the colony disbanded.

Because colony records were lost in the fire, this history of Helicon Home Colony was produced from newspaper and magazine reports, government records, and reminiscences and personal papers of colonists and visitors.  In addition to a narrative history, there is an appendix containing information on the lives of more than fifty adult colony residents.

The major conclusions of this study are that Helicon Home Colony is typical of colonies founded between 1860 and 1914 in its role as both mission and retreat; may be unique in its attempts to structure a year-round colony based on the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and most closely resembles single tax colonies in its emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities in the collective environment and nurture of equality between husbands and wives.

Additionally, Sinclair's interest in reordering the family home--and particularly in communal child care--is shown to remain consistent from early adulthood through his California gubernatorial campaign in 1934.

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