Herbert E. Mills
Over the course of many years, Vassar College Libraries have developed a number of rare collections that are of use to people both on and off campus. One of these is the Robert Owen Collection, housed in the Archives & Special Collections Library. It documents the life and work of one of Britain's most famous nineteenth century utopian socialists. The Owen Collection is one of our lesser-known holdings, but nevertheless it is one that deserves attention, especially in 2008, which represents the 150th anniversary of Owen's death. In fact, Vassar's Robert Owen Collection is probably the most significant collection of its kind in the United States. How did the college come to hold this remarkable resource?
The proximate reason for the development of the Owen Collection is Herbert E. Mills, a longtime professor of economics at Vassar. Mills came to the college in 1890, after having earned the first "summa cum laude" Ph.D. at Cornell. He was something of a pioneer, becoming one of the first economics professors in the country. Mills had a fruitful academic career, authoring a number of books and articles, and teaching over 6,000 students. Between the presidencies of James Monroe Taylor and Henry Noble MacCracken, he served as Chairman of the faculty, in effect making the decisions normally made by the president. Professor Mills was very engaged in the local community; at different times he served as president or chairman of several local organizations and institutions, including the Hudson House of Refuge for Women; the Poughkeepsie Board of Education; and the Dutchess County Child Welfare Board. He is especially well-known for having served in 1918 as Dean of the Red Cross Summer Nursing Camp at Vassar, which trained hundreds of young women for wartime service in nursing. When he retired in 1931, the Mills Gate was dedicated at the northwest corner of campus to honor his leadership of the nursing camp. He died in 1946.
The connection to Robert Owen comes through Mills' teaching. For many years the professor offered a course on socialism, which had different manifestations, early on appearing as "Socialism and the Labor Problem," then simply "Socialism," and finally "Programs of Social Reorganization." Every time the course was taught, it included an introduction and then treatment of socialist movements and theories in history, from the time of the ancients through to the present. Attention was given to the nineteenth century utopians, namely Etienne Cabet, Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and the Comte de Saint-Simon. The classes on Owen covered his life and character, his philosophy, and various "Owenistic" communities. The discussion of contemporary economic and social problems in the course clearly rooted in an understanding of the history of socialist ideas and ideals.