I have always expended to the last
shilling my surplus wealth in promoting this
great and good cause of industrial betterment.
The right-reverend prelate is greatly deceived
when he says that I have squandered my wealth
in profligacy and luxury. I have never expended
a pound in either; all my habits are habits of temperance
in all things, and I challenge the right-reverend
prelate and all his abettors to prove the contrary,
and I will give him and them the means of following
me through every stage and month of my life.
Owen, in Speech before the House of Lords
In Germany, the land of philosophy,
when the savants sail into a sea of doubt, some one
sets up the cry, “Back to Kant!”
In America, when professed democracy
grows ambitious and evolves a lust for power, men
say, “Back to Jefferson!”
In business, when employer forgets
employee and both forget their better manhood, we
say, “Back to Robert Owen!”
We will not go back to Robert Owen:
we will go on to Robert Owen, for his philosophy is
still in the vanguard.
Robert Owen was a businessman.
His first intent was to attain a practical success.
He produced the article, and sold it at a profit.
In this operation of taking raw material
and manufacturing it into forms of use and beauty from
the time the seed was planted in the ground on up
to the consumer who purchased the finished fabric and
wove it Owen believed that all should profit all
should be made happier by every transaction.
That is to say, Robert Owen believed
that a business transaction where both sides do not
make money is immoral.
There is a legal maxim still cited
in the courts “Caveat emptor” let
the buyer beware.
For this maxim Robert Owen had no
respect. He scorned the thought of selling a
man something the man did not want, or of selling an
article for anything except exactly what it was, or
of exacting a price for it, by hook or crook, beyond
Robert Owen believed in himself, and
in his product, and he believed in the people.
He was a democratic optimist. He had faith in
the demos; and the reason was that his estimate of
the people was formed by seeing into his own heart.
He realized that he was a part of the people, and he
knew that he wanted nothing for himself which the
world could not have on the same terms. He looked
into the calm depths of his own heart and saw that
he hated tyranny, pretense, vice, hypocrisy, extravagance
and untruth. He knew in the silence of his own
soul that he loved harmony, health, industry, reciprocity,
truth and helpfulness. His desire was to benefit
mankind, and to help himself by helping others.
Therefore he concluded that, the source
of all life being the same, he was but a sample of
the average man, and all men would, if not intimidated
and repressed, desire what he desired.
When physically depressed, through
lack of diversified exercise, bad air or wrong conditions,
he realized that his mind was apt to be at war, not
only with its best self, but with any person who chanced
to be near. From this he argued that all departures
in society were occasioned by wrong physical conditions,
and in order to get a full and free expression of
the Divine Mind, of which we are all reflectors or
mediums, our bodies must have a right environment.
To get this right environment became
the chief business and study of his life.
To think that a man who always considers
“the other fellow” should be a great success
in a business way is to us more or less of a paradox.
“Keep your eye on Number One,” we advise
the youth intent on success. “Take care
of yourself,” say the bucolic Solons when we
start on a little journey. And “Self-preservation
is the first law of life,” voice the wise ones.
And yet we know that the man who thinks
only of himself acquires the distrust of the whole
community. He sets in motion forces that work
against him, and has thereby created a handicap that
blocks him at every step.
Robert Owen was one of those quiet,
wise men who win the confidence of men, and thereby
siphon to themselves all good things. That the
psychology of success should have been known to this
man in Seventeen Hundred Ninety, we might call miraculous,
were it not for the fact that the miraculous is always
Those were troublous times when Robert
Owen entered trade. The French Revolution was
on, and its fires lit up the intellectual sky of the
whole world. The Colonies had been lost to England;
it was a time of tumult in Threadneedle Street; the
armies of the world were lying on their arms awaiting
orders. And out of this great unrest emerged Robert
Owen, handsome, intelligent, honest, filled with a
holy zeal to help himself by helping humanity.
Robert Owen was born in the village
of Newtown, Wales, in Seventeen Hundred Seventy-one.
After being away from his native village for many
years, he returned, as did Shakespeare and as have
so many successful men, and again made the place of
his boyhood the home of his old age. Owen died
in the house in which he was born. His body was
buried in the same grave where sleeps the dust of
his father and his mother. During the eighty-seven
years of his life he accomplished many things and
taught the world lessons which it has not yet memorized.
In point of time, Robert Owen seems
to have been the world’s first Businessman.
Private business was to him a public trust. He
was a creator, a builder, an economist, an educator,
a humanitarian. He got his education from his
work, at his work, and strove throughout his long
life to make it possible for others to do the same.
He believed in the Divinity of Business.
He anticipated Emerson by saying, “Commerce
consists in making things for people who need them,
and carrying them from where they are plentiful to
where they are wanted.”
Every economist should be a humanitarian;
and every humanitarian should be an economist.
Charles Dickens, writing in Eighteen Hundred Sixty,
puts forth Scrooge, Carker and Bumball as economists.
When Dickens wanted to picture ideal businessmen,
he gave us the Cheeryble brothers men with
soft hearts, giving pennies to all beggars, shillings
to poor widows, and coal and loaves of bread to families
living in rickety tenements. The Dickens idea
of betterment was the priestly plan of dole.
Dickens did not know that indiscriminate almsgiving
pauperizes humanity, and never did he supply the world
a glimpse of a man like Robert Owen, whose charity
was something more than palliation.
Robert Owen was born in decent poverty,
of parents who knew the simple, beautiful and necessary
virtues of industry, sobriety and economy. Where
this son got his hunger for books and his restless
desire for achievement we do not know. He was
a business genius, and from genius of any kind no
hovel is immune.
He was sent to London at the age of
ten, to learn the saddler’s trade; at twelve
he graduated from making wax-ends, blacking leather
and greasing harness and took a position as salesman
in the same business.
From this he was induced to become
a salesman for a haberdasher. He had charm of
manner fluidity, sympathy and health.
At seventeen he asked to be paid a commission on sales
instead of a salary, and on this basis he saved a
hundred pounds in a year.
At eighteen a customer told him of
a wonderful invention a machine that was
run by steam for spinning cotton into yarn.
Robert was familiar with the old process of making
woolen yarn on a spinning-wheel by hand his
mother did it and had taught him and his brothers and
Cotton was just coming in, since the
close of “George Washington’s Rebellion.”
Watt had watched his mother’s teakettle to a
good purpose. Here were two big things destined
to revolutionize trade: the use of cotton in
place of flax or wool, and steam-power instead of human
muscle. Robert Owen resigned his clerkship and
invested all of his earnings in three mule spinning-machines.
Then he bought cotton on credit.
He learned the business, and the first
year made three hundred pounds.
Seeing an advertisement in the paper
for an experienced superintendent of a cotton mill,
he followed his intuitions, hunted out the advertiser,
a Mr. Drinkwater, and asked for the place.
Mr. Drinkwater looked at the beardless
stripling, smiled and explained that he wanted a man,
not a boy a man who could take charge of
a mill at Manchester, employing five hundred hands.
Robert Owen stood his ground.
What would he work for?
Three hundred pounds a year.
Bosh! Boys of nineteen could be had for fifty
pounds a year.
“But not boys like me,”
said Robert Owen, earnestly. Then he explained
to Mr. Drinkwater his position that he had
a little mill of his own and had made three hundred
pounds the first year. But he wanted to get into
a larger field with men of capital.
Mr. Drinkwater was interested.
Looking up the facts he found them to be exactly as
stated. He hired the youth at his own price and
also bought all of young Mr. Owen’s machinery
and stock, raw and made up.
Robert Owen, aged nineteen, went at
once to Manchester and took charge of the mill.
His business was to buy and install new machinery,
hire all help, fix wages, buy the raw material, and
manufacture and sell the product.
For six weeks he did not give a single
order, hire a new man, nor discharge an old one.
He silently studied the situation. He worked with
the men made friends with them, and recorded
memoranda of his ideas. He was the first one
at the factory in the morning the last to
leave it at night.
After six weeks he began to act.
The first year’s profit was
twenty per cent on the investment, against five for
the year before.
Drinkwater paid him four hundred pounds
instead of three, and proposed it should be five hundred
for the next year. A contract was drawn up, running
for five years, giving Owen a salary, and also a percentage
after sales mounted above a certain sum.
Robert Owen was now twenty years of
age. He was sole superintendent of the mill.
The owner lived at London and had been up just once this
after Owen had been in his new position for three months.
Drinkwater saw various improvements made in the plant the
place was orderly, tidy, cleanly, and the workers
were not complaining, although Owen was crowding out
Owen was on friendly terms with his
people, visiting them in their homes. He had
organized a day-school for the smaller children and
a night-school for the older ones who worked in the
mills. His friendliness, good-cheer and enthusiasm
were contagious. The place was prosperous.
Just here let us make a digression
and inspect the peculiar conditions of the time.
It was a period of transition the
old was dying, the new was being born. Both experiences
There was a rapid displacement of
hand labor. One machine did the work of ten or
more persons. What were these people who were
thrown out, to do? Adjust themselves to the new
conditions, you say. True, but many could not.
They starved, grew sick, ate their hearts out in useless
Only a few years before, and the spinning
of flax and wool was exclusively a home industry.
Every cottage had its spinning-wheel and loom.
There was a garden, a cow, a pig, poultry and fruits
and flowers. The whole household worked, and
the wheel and loom were never idle while it was light.
The family worked in relays.
It was a very happy and prosperous
time. Life was simple and natural. There
was constant labor, but it was diversified. The
large flocks of sheep, raised chiefly for wool, made
mutton cheap. Everything was home-made.
People made things for themselves, and if they acquired
a superior skill they supplied their neighbors, or
exchanged products with them. As the manufacturing
was done in the homes, there was no crowding of population.
The factory boarding-house and the tenement were yet
This was the condition up to Seventeen
Hundred Seventy. From then until Seventeen Hundred
Ninety was the time of transition. By Seventeen
Hundred Ninety, mills were erected wherever there was
water-power, and the village artisans were moving
to the towns to work in the mills.
For the young men and women it was
an alluring life. The old way gave them no time
to themselves there was the cow to milk,
the pigs and poultry to care for, or the garden making
insistent demands. Now they worked at certain
hours for certain wages, and rested. Tenements
took the place of cottages, and the “public,”
with its smiling barkeep, was always right at the
Hargreaves, Arkwright, Watt and Eli
Whitney had worked a revolution more far-reaching
than did Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre and Marat.
Here creeps in an item interesting
to our friends who revel in syntax and prosody.
Any machine or apparatus for lifting has been called
a “jack” since the days of Shakespeare.
The jack was the bearer of bundles, a lifter, a puller,
a worker. Any coarse bit of mechanism was called
a jack, and is yet. In most factories there are
testing-jacks, gearing-jacks, lifting-jacks.
Falstaff tells of a jack-of-all-trades. The jack
was anything strong, patient and serviceable.
When Hargreaves, the Lancashire carpenter,
invented his spinning-machine, a village wit called
it a “jenny.” The machine was fine,
delicate, subtle, and as spinning was a woman’s
business anyway, the new machine was parsed in the
Soon the new invention took on a heavier
and stronger form, and its persistency suggested to
some other merry bucolic a new variation and it was
called a “mule.” The word stuck, and
the mule-spinner is with us wherever cotton is spun.
The discovery that coal was valuable
for fuel followed the invention of the steam-engine.
When things are needed we dig down
and find them, or reach up and secure them. You
could not run a steamship, except along a river with
well-wooded banks, any more than you could run an automobile
The dealing in coal, or “coals”
as our English cousins still use the word, began in
Eighteen Hundred Nineteen. That was the year the
first steamship, the “Savannah,” crossed
the ocean. She ran from Savannah to London.
Her time was twenty-five days. She burned four
hundred fifty tons of coal, or about two-thirds of
her entire carrying capacity. Robert Fulton had
been running his steamer “Clermont” on
the Hudson in Eighteen Hundred Seven, but there were
wooding-stations every twenty miles.
It was argued in the House of Commons
that no steamship could ever cross the Atlantic with
steam, alone, as a propelling power. And even
as it was being mathematically proved, the whistle
of the “Savannah” drowned the voice of
But the “Savannah” also
carried sail, and so the doubters still held the floor.
An iron boat with no sails that could cross the Atlantic
in five days was a miracle that no optimist had foreseen much
less, dared prophesy.
The new conditions almost threatened
to depopulate the rural districts. Farmers forsook
the soil. The uncertainty of a crop was replaced
with the certainty of a given wage. Children
could tend the spinning-jennies as well as men.
There was a demand for child labor. Any poor man
with a big family counted himself rich. Many
a man who could not find a job at a man’s wage
quit work and was supported by his wife and children.
To rear a family became a paying enterprise.
Various mill-owners adopted children
or took them under the apprentice system, agreeing
to teach them the trade. Girls and boys from orphan
asylums and workhouses were secured and held as practical
slaves. They were herded in sheep-sheds, where
they slept on straw and were fed in troughs.
They were worked in two shifts, night and day, so the
straw was never really cold. They worked twelve
hours, slept eight, and one hour was allowed for meals.
Their clothing was not removed except on Saturday.
Any alteration in the business life of a people is
fraught with great danger.
Recklessness, greed and brutality
at such a time are rife.
Almost all workingmen of forty or
over were out of work. Naturally, employers hired
only the young, the active, the athletic. These
made more money than they were used to making, so
they spent it lavishly and foolishly. It was
a prosperous time, yet, strangely enough, prosperity
brought starvation to thousands. Family life in
many instances was destroyed, and thus were built
those long rows of houses, all alike, with no mark
of individuality no yard, no flowers, no
gardens that still in places mar the landscape
in factory towns.
Pretty girls went to the towns to
work in the mills, and thus lost home ties. Later
they drifted to London. Drunkenness increased.
In Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six, there
was formed the Manchester Board of Health. Its
intent was to guard the interests of factory-workers.
Its desire was to insure light, ventilation and sanitary
conveniences for the workers. Beyond this it
did not seek to go.
The mill superintendents lifted a
howl. They talked about interference, and depriving
the poor people of the right to labor. They declared
it was all a private matter between themselves and
the workers a matter of contract.
Robert Owen, it seems, was the first
factory superintendent to invite inspection of his
plant. He worked with the Board of Health, not
against it. He refused to employ children under
ten years of age, and although there was a tax on
windows, he supplied plenty of light and also fresh
air. So great was the ignorance of the workers
that they regarded the Factory Laws as an infringement
on their rights. The greed and foolish fears
of the mill-owners prompted them to put out the good
old argument that a man’s children were his
own, and that for the State to dictate to him where
they should work, when and how, was a species of tyranny.
Work was good for children! Let them run the
It is a curious thing to note that
when Senator Albert J. Beveridge endeavored to have
a Federal Bill passed at Washington, in Nineteen Hundred
Seven, the arguments he had to meet and answer were
those which Robert Owen and Sir Robert Peel were obliged
to answer in Seventeen Hundred Ninety-five.
When a man who worked a hundred orphans
fourteen hours a day, boys and girls of from six to
twelve, was accused of cruelty, he defended himself
by saying, “If I doesn’t work ’em
all the time ’cept when they sleep and eat,
they will learn to play, and then never work.”
This argument was repeated by many fond parents as
The stress of the times having
many machines in one building, all run by one motor
power, the necessity of buying raw material in quantities,
the expense of finding a market all these
combined to force the invention of a very curious
economic expediency. It was called a Joint Stock
Company. From a man and his wife and his children
making things at home, we get two or three men going
into partnership and hiring a few of their neighbors
at day wages.
Then we get the system of “shareholding,”
with hundreds or thousands of people as partners in
a manufacturing enterprise which they never visit.
The people who owned the shares were
the ones who owned the tools. Very naturally,
they wanted and expected dividends for the use of the
tools. That was all they wanted dividends.
The manager of the mill held his position only through
his ability to make the venture bring returns.
The people who owned the shares or the tools, never
saw the people who used the tools. A great gulf
lay between them. For the wrongs and injustices
visited upon the workers no one person was to blame.
The fault was shifted. Everybody justified himself.
And then came the saying, “Corporations have
Robert Owen was manager of a mill,
yet he saw the misery, the ignorance and the mental
indifference that resulted from the factory system.
He, too, must produce dividends, but the desire of
his heart was also to mitigate the lot of the workers.
Books were written by good men picturing
the evils of the factory system. Comparisons
were made between the old and the new, in which the
hideousness of the new was etched in biting phrase.
Some tried to turn the dial backward and revive the
cottage industries, as did Ruskin a little later.
“A Dream of John Ball” was anticipated,
and many sighed for “the good old times.”
But among the many philosophers and
philanthropists who wrestled with the problem, Robert
Owen seems to have stood alone in the belief that
success lay in going on, and not in turning back.
He set himself to making the new condition tolerable
and prophesied a day when out of the smoke and din
of strife would emerge a condition that would make
for health, happiness and prosperity such as this
tired old world never has seen. Robert Owen was
England’s first Socialist.
Very naturally he was called a dreamer.
Some called him an infidel and the enemy of society.
Very many now call him a seer and a prophet.
In Robert Owen’s day cotton
yarn was packaged and sold in five-pound bundles.
These packages were made up in hanks of a given number
of yards. One hundred twenty counts to a package
was fixed upon as “par,” or “standard
count.” If the thread was very fine, of
course more hanks were required to make up the five
pounds. The price ranged up or down, below or
above the one-hundred-twenty mark. That is, if
a package contained two hundred forty hanks, its value
was just double what it would have been if merely
Robert Owen knew fabrics before he began to spin.
First, he was a salesman. Second, he made the
things he could sell.
The one supremely difficult thing
in business is salesmanship. Goods can be manufactured
on formula, but it takes a man to sell. He who
can sell is a success others may be.
The only men who succeed in dictating
the policy of the house are those in the Sales Department that
is, those who are on the side of income, not of expense.
The man with a “secret process”
of manufacture always imparts his secret, sooner or
later; but the salesman does not impart his secret,
because he can’t. It is not transferable.
It is a matter of personality. Not only does
the salesman have to know his goods, but he must know
the buyer he must know humanity.
And humanity was the raw stock in
which Robert Owen dealt. Robert Owen never tried
to increase his sales by decreasing his price.
His product was always higher than standard.
“Anybody can cut prices,” he said, “but
it takes brains to make a better article.”
He focused on fineness.
And soon buyers were coming to him.
A finer article meant a finer trade. And now,
on each package of yarn that Owen sent out, he placed
a label that read thus, “This package was made
under the supervision of Robert Owen.”
Thus his name gradually became a synonym for quality.
Among other curious ideas held by
Owen was that to make finer goods you must have a
finer quality of workman. To produce this finer
type of person now became his dream.
Mr. Drinkwater smiled at the idea
and emphasized “dividends.”
Now Mr. Drinkwater had a son-in-law
who looked in on things once a month, signed his voucher
and went away fox-hunting. He thought he was
helping run the mill. This man grew jealous of
the young manager and suggested that Drinkwater increase
the boy’s pay and buy off the percentage clause
in the contract, so as to keep the youngster from
Drinkwater asked Owen what he would
take for the contract, and Owen handed it to him and
said, “Nothing.” It gave him a chance
to get out into a larger field. Drinkwater never
thought of the value of that little Robert Owen label.
No wise employer should ever allow a thing like that.
Owen had won both name and fame among
the merchants, and he now engaged with several mills
to superintend their output and sell their goods with
his label on each package. In other words, he
was a Manufacturers’ Broker. From a five-hundred-pound-a-year
man he had grown to be worth two thousand pounds a
No mill owned him. He was free he
was making money. The dream of human betterment
was still in his heart.
On one of his trips to Glasgow to
sell goods, he met a daughter of David Dale, a mill-owner
who was in active competition with him. Dale made
a fine yarn, too.
The girl had heard of Owen: they
met as enemies a very good way to begin
an acquaintance. It was Nature’s old, old
game of stamen, pistil and pollen, that fertilizes
the world of business, betterment and beauty.
“You are the man who puts your name on the package?”
“And yet you own no mill!”
“True but ”
“Never mind. You certainly are proud of
“I am wouldn’t you be?”
“Not of yours.”
Then they stared at each other in
defiance. To relieve the tension, Mr. Owen proposed
a stroll. They took a walk through the park and
discovered that they both were interested in Social
Reform. David Dale owned the mills at New Lanark a
most picturesque site. He was trying to carry
on a big business, so as to make money and help the
workers. He was doing neither, because his investment
in the plant had consumed too much of his working
They discussed the issue until eleven forty-five by
The girl knew business and knew Society. The
latter she had no use for.
The next day they met again, and quite
accidentally found themselves engaged, neither of
’em knew how.
It was very embarrassing! How could they break
the news to Papa Dale?
They devised a way. It was this: Robert
Owen was to go and offer to buy
Mr. Dale’s mills.
Owen went over to Lanark and called
on Mr. Dale, and told him he wanted to buy his business.
Mr. Dale looked at the boy, and smiled. Owen was
twenty-seven, but appeared twenty, being beardless,
slight and fair-haired.
The youth said he could get all the
money that was needed. They sparred for a time neither
side naming figures. It being about noontime,
Mr. Dale asked young Mr. Owen to go over to his house
to lunch. Mr. Dale was a widower, but his daughter
kept the house. Mr. Dale introduced Mr. Owen
to Miss Dale.
The young folks played their parts
with a coolness that would have delighted John Drew,
and would have been suspicious to anybody but a fussy
Finally as the crumbs were being brushed
from the rich man’s table, Mr. Dale fixed on
the sum of sixty thousand pounds for his property.
Owen was satisfied and named as terms
three thousand pounds and interest each year for twenty
years, touching the young lady’s toe with his
own under the table.
Mr. Dale agreed. Mr. Owen had
the money to make the first payment. The papers
were drawn up. The deal was closed all
but the difficult part. This was done by rushing
the enemy in his library, after a good meal.
“It keeps the business in the family, you see,”
said the girl on her knees, pouting prettily.
The point was gained, and when Robert
Owen, a few weeks later, came to New Lanark to take
possession of the property, he did as much for the
girl. So they were married and lived happily ever
Robert Owen took up his work at New
Lanark with all the enthusiasm that hope, youth and
love could bring to bear.
Mr. Dale had carried the flag as far
to the front as he thought it could be safely carried that
is to say, as far as he was able to carry it.
Owen had his work cut out for him.
The workers were mostly Lowland Scotch and spoke in
an almost different language from Owen. They looked
upon him with suspicion. The place had been sold,
and they had gone with it how were they
to be treated? Were wages to be lowered and hours
Pilfering had been reduced to a system,
and to get the start of the soft-hearted owner was
Mr. Dale had tried to have a school,
and to this end had hired an elderly Irishman, who
gave hard lessons and a taste of the birch to children
who had exhausted themselves in the mills and had no
zest for learning. Mr. Dale had taken on more
than two hundred pauper children from the workhouses
and these were a sore trial to him.
Owen’s first move was to reduce
the working-hours from twelve to ten hours. Indeed,
he was the first mill-owner to adopt the ten-hour plan.
He improved the sanitary arrangements, put in shower-baths
and took a personal interest in the diet of his little
wards, often dining with them.
A special school-building was erected
at a cost of thirty thousand dollars. This was
both a day and a night school. It also took children
of one year old and over, in order to relieve mothers
who worked in the mills. The “little mothers,”
often only four or five years old, took care of babies
a year old and younger, all day.
Owen instructed his teachers never
to scold or to punish by inflicting physical pain.
His was the first school in Christendom to abolish
His plan anticipated the Kindergarten
and the Creche. He called mothers’ meetings,
and tried to show the uselessness of scolding and beating,
because to do these things was really to teach the
children to do them. He abolished the sale of
strong drink in New Lanark. Model houses were
erected, gardens planted, and prizes given for the
raising of flowers.
In order not to pauperize his people,
Owen had them pay a slight tuition for the care of
the children, and there was a small tax levied to buy
flower-seeds. In the school-building was a dance-hall
and an auditorium.
At one time the supply of raw cotton
was cut off for four months. During this time
Owen paid his people full wages, insisted that they
should all, old and young, go to school for two hours
a day, and also work two hours a day at tree-planting,
grading and gardening. During this period of
idleness he paid out seven thousand pounds in wages.
This was done to keep the workmen from wandering away.
It need not be imagined that Owen
did not have other cares besides those of social betterment.
Much of the machinery in the mills was worn and becoming
obsolete. To replace this he borrowed a hundred
thousand dollars. Then he reorganized his business
as a stock company and sold shares to several London
merchants with whom he dealt. He interested Jeremy
Bentham, the great jurist and humanitarian, and Bentham
proved his faith by buying stock in the New Lanark
Joseph Lancaster, the Quaker, a mill-owner
and philanthropist, did the same.
Owen paid a dividend of five per cent
on his shares. A surplus was also set aside to
pay dividends in case of a setback, but beyond this
the money was invested in bettering the environment
of his people.
New Lanark had been running fourteen
years under Owen’s management. It had attracted
the attention of the civilized world. The Grand
Duke Nicholas, afterwards the Czar, spent a month
with Owen studying his methods. The Dukes of
Kent, Sussex, Bedford and Portland; the Archbishop
of Canterbury; the Bishops of London, Peterborough
and Carlisle; the Marquis of Huntly; Lords Grosvenor,
Carnarvon, Granville, Westmoreland, Shaftesbury and
Manners; General Sir Thomas Dyce and General Brown;
Ricardo, De Crespigny, Wilberforce, Joseph Butterworth
and Sir Francis Baring all visited New
Lanark. Writers, preachers, doctors, in fact
almost every man of intellect and worth in the Kingdom,
knew of Robert Owen and his wonderful work at New
Lanark. Sir Robert Peel had been to New Lanark
and had gone back home and issued an official bulletin
inviting mill-owners to study and pattern after the
The House of Commons asked Owen to
appear and explain his plan for abolishing poverty
from the Kingdom. He was invited to lecture in
many cities. He issued a general call to all
mill-owners in the Kingdom to co-operate with him
in banishing ignorance and poverty.
But to a great degree Owen worked
alone and New Lanark was a curiosity. Most mill
towns had long rows of dingy tenements, all alike,
guiltless of paint, with not a flower bed or tree
to mitigate the unloveliness of the scene. Down
there in the dirt and squalor lived the working-folks;
while away up on the hillside, surrounded by a vast
park, with stables, kennels and conservatories, resided
Owen lived with his people. And
the one hundred fifty acres that made up the village
of New Lanark contained a happy, healthy and prosperous
population of about two thousand people.
There was neither pauperism nor disease,
neither gamblers nor drunkards. All worked and
all went to school.
It was an object-lesson of thrift and beauty.
Visitors came from all over Europe often
hundreds a day.
Why could not this example be extended
indefinitely so that hundreds of such villages should
grow instead of only one? There could, there can
and there will be, but the people must evolve their
own ideal environment and not have to have it supplied
By Owen’s strength of purpose
he kept the village ideal, but he failed to evolve
an ideal people. All around were unideal surroundings,
and the people came and went. Strong drink was
to be had only a few miles away. To have an ideal
village, it must be located in an ideal country.
Owen called on the clergy to unite
with him in bringing about an ideal material environment.
He said that good water, sewerage and trees and flowers
worked a better spiritual condition. They replied
by calling him a materialist. He admitted that
he worked for a material good. His followers
added to his troubles by comparing his work with that
of the clergy round about, where vice, poverty and
strong drink grouped themselves about a steeple upon
which was a cross of gold to which labor was nailed a
simile to be used later by a great orator, with profit.
Owen was a Unitarian, with a Quaker
bias. Any clergyman was welcome to come to New
Lanark it was a free platform. A few
preachers accepted the invitation, with the intent
to convert Robert Owen to their particular cause.
New Lanark was pointed out all over England as a godless
town. The bishops issued a general address to
all rectors and curates warning them against “any
system of morals that does away with God and His Son,
Jesus Christ, fixing its salvation on flowerbeds and
New Lanark was making money because
it was producing goods the world wanted. But
its workers were tabu in respectable society, and priestly
hands were held aloft in pretended horror whenever
the name of Robert Owen, or the word “Socialism,”
Owen refused to employ child labor,
and issued a book directing the attention of society
to this deadly traffic in human beings. The parents,
the clergy and the other mill-owners combined against
him, and he was denounced by press and pulpit.
He began to look around for a better
environment for an ideal community. His gaze
was turned toward America.
Robert Owen’s plan for abolishing
vice and poverty was simply to set the people to work
under ideal conditions, and then allow them time enough
for recreation and mental exercise, so that thrift
might follow farming. In reply to the argument
that the workman should evolve his own standard of
life, independent of his employer, Owen said that the
mill with its vast aggregation of hands was an artificial
condition. The invention, ingenuity and enterprise
that evolved the mill were exceptional. The operators
for the most part lacked this constructive genius,
the proof of which lay in the very fact that they
To take advantage of their limitations,
disrupt their natural and accustomed mode of life,
and then throw the blame back upon them for not evolving
a new and better environment, was neither reasonable
The same constructive genius that
built the mill and operated it should be actively
interested in the welfare of the people who worked
in the mill.
To this end there should be an ideal
village adjacent to every great mill. This village
should afford at least half an acre of ground for
every family. In the way of economy, one building
should house a thousand people. It should be
built in the form of a parallelogram and contain co-operative
kitchens, dining-rooms, libraries, art-galleries and
gymnasia. It should be, in fact, a great University,
not unlike the great collection of schools at Oxford
or Cambridge. All would be workers all
would be students.
The villages should be under the general
supervision of the government, in order to secure
stability and permanency. If the mill management
failed, the government should continue the business,
because even if the government lost money in the venture,
at times, this was better than always to be building
jails, prisons, insane asylums, almshouses and hospitals.
In sections where there were no mills
or factories, the government would construct both
mills and villages, to the intent that idleness and
ignorance might be without excuse. To this end
Owen would ask all landowners, or holders of estates
of a thousand acres or more, to set apart one-tenth
of their land for ideal villages and co-operative mills
to be managed by the government.
As proof that his plans were feasible,
Owen pointed to New Lanark and invited investigation.
Among others who answered the invitation
was Henry Hase, cashier of the Bank of England.
Hase reported that New Lanark had the look of a place
that had taken a century to evolve, and in his mind
the nation could not do better than to follow the
example of Owen. He then added, “If the
clergy, nobility and mill-owners will adopt the general
scientific method proposed by Mr. Owen for the abolition
of poverty, ignorance and crime, it will be the greatest
step of progress ever seen in the history of the world.”
In proposing that the clergy, nobility
and mill-owners should unite for the good of mankind,
Mr. Hase was not guilty of subtle humor or ironical
suggestion. He was an honest and sincere man who
had been exposed to the contagious enthusiasm of Mr.
Owen was fifty-seven years of age,
practical man that he was, before he realized that
the clergy, the nobility and the rich mill-owners had
already entered into an unconscious pact to let mankind
go to Gehenna just so long as the honors,
emoluments and dividends were preserved. That
is to say, the solicitation of the Church is not and
never has been for the welfare of the people; it is
for the welfare of the Church for which churchmen
fight. All persecution turns on this point.
If the stability of the Church is
threatened, the Churchmen awake and cry, “To
Arms!” In this respect the Church, the nobility
and vested capital have everything in common they
want perpetuity and security. They seek safety.
All of the big joint-stock companies had in their
directorates members of the nobility and the clergy.
The bishops held vast estates they were
Robert Owen did not represent either
the Church or the nobility. He was a very exceptional
and unique product; he was a workingman who had become
a philanthropic capitalist. He was a lover of
humanity, filled with a holy zeal to better the condition
of the laborer.
The mills at New Lanark were making
money, but the shareholders in London were not satisfied
with their dividends. They considered Owen’s
plans for educating the workingman chimerical.
In one respect they knew that Owen was sane:
he could take the raw stock and produce the quality
of goods that had a market value. He had trained
up a valuable and skilled force of foremen and workers.
Things were prosperous and would be much more so if
Owen would only cease dreaming dreams and devote himself
to the commercial end of the game.
If he would not do this, then he must
buy their stock or sell them a controlling interest
of his own.
He chose the latter.
In Eighteen Hundred Twenty-five, when
he was fifty-five years old, he sailed for America.
He gave lectures in New York, Boston, Philadelphia
and Washington on his new order of economics.
He was listened to with profound attention. At
Washington he was the guest of the President, and
on invitation addressed a joint session of the Senate
and the House, setting forth his arguments for Socialism.
The Moravians at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,
had founded their colony as early as Seventeen Hundred
Twenty. The Zoarites, the Economites, the Separatists,
the Shakers and the Rappites had been in existence
and maintained successful communities for a score
Robert Owen visited these various
colonies and saw that they were all prosperous.
There was neither sickness, vice, poverty, drunkenness
nor disease to be found among them. He became
more and more convinced that the demands of an advancing
civilization would certainly be co-operative in nature.
Chance might unhorse the individual, but with a community
the element of chance was eliminated. He laid
it down as a maxim, evolved from his study, observation
and experience, that the community that exists for
three years is a success. That no industrial community
had ever endured for three years, save as it was founded
on a religious concept, was a fact that he overlooked.
Also, he failed to see that the second generation
of communists did not coalesce, and as a result that
thirty-three years was the age limit for even a successful
community; and that, if it still survived, it was
because it was reorganized under a strong and dominant
Communists or Socialists are of two
classes: those who wish to give and those who
wish to get. When fifty-one per cent of the people
in a community are filled with a desire to give, Socialism
will be a success.
Perhaps the most successful social
experiment in America was the Oneida Community, but
next to this was the Harmonyites, founded by George
Rapp. The Harmonyites founded Harmony, Indiana,
in Eighteen Hundred Fourteen. They moved from
Pennsylvania and had been located at their present
site for eleven years. They owned thirty thousand
acres of splendid land at the junction of the Wabash
and Ohio Rivers. They had built more than a hundred
houses, and had barns, stores, a church, a hall, a
sawmill, a hotel and a woolen-factory.
Now when Owen went to Pittsburgh,
he floated down the Ohio to Cincinnati and then on
to Harmony. He was graciously received and was
delighted with all he saw and heard.
Owen saw the success of the woolen-mill,
and declared that to bring cotton up by steamboat
from the South would be easy. He would found
cotton-mills, and here New Lanark should bloom again,
only on an increased scale.
Would the Rappites sell?
Yes; they wanted to move back to Pennsylvania,
where there were other groups of similar faith.
Their place, they figured, was worth
two hundred fifty thousand dollars. Owen made
an offer of one hundred fifty thousand dollars, which
to his surprise was quietly accepted. It was
a quick deal.
The Rappites moved out, and the Owenites moved in.
Just across the Ohio River they founded the town of
Then Owen went back to England and
sent over about three hundred of his people, including
his own son, Robert Dale Owen.
Robert Owen had large interests in
England, and New Harmony on the banks of the Wabash
was incidental. Robert Dale Owen was then twenty-five
years old. He was a philosopher, not an economist,
and since the place lacked a business head, dissensions
arose. Let some one else tell how quickly a community
can evaporate when it lacks the cement of religious
For the first few weeks, all entered
into the new system with a will. Service
was the order of the day. Men who seldom or never
before labored with their hands devoted themselves
to agriculture and the mechanical arts with a
zeal which was at least commendable, though not
always well directed. Ministers of the gospel
guided the plow and called swine to their corn
instead of sinners to repentance, and let patience
have her perfect work over an unruly yoke of
oxen. Merchants exchanged the yardstick for the
rake or pitchfork; and all appeared to labor
cheerfully for the common weal. Among the
women there was even more apparent self-sacrifice.
Those who had seldom seen the inside of their
own kitchens went into that of the common eating-house
(formerly a hotel) and made themselves useful
among pots and kettles. Refined young ladies who
had been waited upon all their lives took turns
in waiting upon others at the table. And
several times a week all parties who chose, mingled
in the social dance in the great dining-hall.
But notwithstanding the apparent heartiness
and cordiality of this auspicious opening, it
was in the social atmosphere of the Community
that the first cloud arose. Self-love was a spirit
which could not be exorcised. It whispered
to the lowly maidens, whose former position in
society had cultivated the spirit of meekness, “Thou
art as good as the formerly rich and fortunate; insist
upon your equality.” It reminded the
former favorites of society of their lost superiority,
and despite all rules tinctured their words and
actions with “airs” and conceit. Similar
thoughts and feelings soon arose among the men;
and though not so soon exhibited they were none
the less deep and strong. Suffice it to say, that
at the end of three months three months! the
leading minds in the Community were compelled
to acknowledge to one another that the social
life of the Community could not be bounded by a single
circle. They therefore acquiesced, though
reluctantly, to its division into many.
But they still hoped, and many of them no doubt believed,
that though social equality was a failure, community
of property was not. Whether the law of
mine and thine is natural or incidental in human
character, it soon began to develop its sway.
The industrious, the skilful and the strong saw
the product of their labor enjoyed by the indolent,
the unskilled and the improvident; and self-love
rose against benevolence. A band of musicians
thought their brassy harmony was as necessary to the
common happiness as bread and meat, and declined
to enter the harvest-field or the workshop.
A lecturer upon natural science insisted upon
talking while others worked. Mechanics, whose
single day’s labor brought two dollars
into the common stock, insisted that they should
in justice work only half as long as the agriculturist,
whose day’s work brought but one.
Of course, for a while, these jealousies
were concealed, but soon they began to be expressed.
It was useless to remind all parties that the
common labor of all ministered to the prosperity of
the Community. Individual happiness was
the law of Nature and it could not be obliterated.
And before a single year had passed, this law had
scattered the members of that society which had come
together so earnestly and under such favorable
circumstances, and driven them back into the
selfish world from which they came.
The writer of this sketch has since
heard the history of that eventful year reviewed
with honesty and earnestness by the best men and
most intelligent parties of that unfortunate social
experiment. They admitted the favorable
circumstances which surrounded its commencement;
the intelligence, devotion and earnestness which were
brought to the cause by its projectors, and its
final total failure. And they rested ever
after in the belief that man, though disposed
to philanthropy, is essentially selfish, and a community
of social equality and common property is an impossibility.
The loss of two hundred thousand dollars
did not dampen the ardor of Robert Owen. He paid
up the debts of New Harmony, had the property surveyed
and subdivided, and then deeded it to his children
and immediate relatives and a few of the “staunch
friends who have such a lavish and unwise faith in
my wisdom” to use his own expression.
To give work to the unemployed of
England now became his immediate solicitation.
He was sixty years old when he inaugurated his first
co-operative store, which in fact is the parent of
our modern Department-Store.
In this store he proposed to buy any
useful article or product which any man might make
or produce, figuring on cost of the raw material and
sixpence an hour for labor. This labor was to
be paid for in Labor Script, receivable in payment
for anything the man might want to buy. Here
we get the Labor Exchange. Owen proposed that
the Government should set delinquent men to work,
instead of sending them to prison. Any man who
would work, no matter what he had done, should be made
free. The Government would then pay the man in
Labor-Exchange Script. Of course, if the Government
guaranteed the script, it was real money; otherwise,
it was wildcat money, subject to fluctuation and depreciation.
Very naturally, the Government refused to guarantee
this script, or to invest in the co-operative stores.
To make the script valuable, it had to be issued in
the form of a note, redeemable in gold at a certain
The stores were started, and many
idle men found work in building mills and starting
various industries. Three years passed, and some
of the script became due. It was found to be
largely held by saloonkeepers who had accepted it
at half-price. Efforts had been constantly made
to hurt Owen’s standing and depreciate the market
value of this currency.
The Labor Exchange that had issued
the script was a corporation, and Robert Owen was
not individually liable, but he stepped into the breach
and paid every penny out of his own purse, saying,
“No man shall ever say that he lost money by
following my plans.”
Next he founded the co-operative village
of Harmony or Queenswood. The same general plan
that he had followed at New Lanark was here carried
out, save that he endeavored to have the mill owned
by the workers instead of by outside capital.
Through his very able leadership,
this new venture continued for ten years and was indeed
a school and a workshop. The workers had gardens,
flowers, books. There were debates, classes, and
much intellectual exercise that struck sparks from
heads that were once punk. John Tyndall was one
of the teachers and also a worker in this mill.
Let the fact stand out that Owen discovered Tyndall a
great, divinely human nautilus and sent
him sailing down the tides of Time.
At eighty years of age, Owen appeared
before the House of Commons and read a paper which
he had spent a year in preparing, “The Abolition
of Poverty and Crime.” He held the Government
responsible for both, and said that until the ruling
class took up the reform idea and quit their policy
of palliation, society would wander in the wilderness.
To gain the Promised Land we must all move together
in a government “of the people, by the people
and for the people.” He was listened to
with profound respect and a vote of thanks tendered
him; but his speech never reached the public printer.
Robert Dale Owen became a naturalized
citizen of the United States, and for several years
was a member of Congress, and at the time of the death
of his father was our minister to Italy, having been
appointed by President Pierce.
He was in England at the time of the
passing of Robert Owen, and announced the fact to
the family at New Harmony, Indiana, in the following
Newtown, Wales, November
It is all over. Our dear father
passed away this morning, at a quarter before
seven, as quietly and gently as if he had been falling
asleep. There was not the least struggle, not
the contraction of a limb or a muscle, not an
expression of pain on his face. His breathing
stopped so gradually that, even as I held his hand,
I could scarcely tell the moment when he no longer
lived. His last words, distinctly pronounced
about twenty minutes before his death, were:
“Relief has come.”