History of Utopian Founder Robert Owen Part 1

About utopian founder Robert Owen, history and biography of the creator of New Harmony.


ROBERT OWEN (1771-1858)

A small, jittery man with a big nose and a high-pitched voice, Robert Owen was a highly successful British industrialist who chucked everything to promote his utopian ideas. The genius he showed at managing commercial ventures did not carry over, however; all the utopian communities he helped to create were failures.

Born in Wales, Owen was a child prodigy. By the age of seven, he had exhausted all the village teacher's limited knowledge. He was not from a wealthy family, however, so his formal schooling ended when, at nine, he went to work for a grocer. After an apprenticeship to a haberdasher on London Bridge, Owen started his first business, a plant for manufacturing cotton-spinning machinery, with a partner and pound 100 borrowed from Owen's brother. Several successful businesses later, he fell in love with Anne Caroline Dale, the daughter of the owner of the New Lanark Mills in Glasgow. Caroline's father refused at first to approve the match. To him, Owen's financial success did not offset the fact that he was a freethinker and therefore suspect. When Owen invested in the Glasgow mills, Mr. Dale changed his mind about the marriage.

Owen did far more for his workers than most industrialists of his time. When the mills were closed for seven months during the American embargo of 1806, he paid full salaries to all the employees. He also put a stop to the hiring of children from foundling homes, established a commissary, and started a company school, which emphasized teaching through kindness.

In 1820 Owen left business to write, speak, edit magazines, and start utopian communities where there would be, he hoped, a return to handicraft and communal sharing.

New Harmony, the most famous Owenite community and the one with which he was most closely associated, fell far short of his ideal. He called it a "half-way" house on the road to what he really envisioned--an association of from 400 to 1,000 single people who would act as one family. He had ideas about building a village for such a family and hired an architect, Stedman Whitewell, to draw up plans for it. Ironically, in Whitewell's plans, this village turned out to look like a medieval castle.

Owen spent several years at a time in the U.S., but he kept his British citizenship. As he grew older, he became more and more vague and less and less rational. In 1858 he made his last public appearance in the U.S. and then went back home to die. He left three American sons. Two were college professors, and the third, Robert Dale Owen, was a writer on tribalism and birth control, a prime mover in passing a progressive Indiana law on women's property rights, and a close companion and perhaps lover of Fanny Wright, the utopian who founded Nashoba.

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