Scoring sweet styles at Mills Brothers dating back 104 years

Posted on February 24, 2023 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments


Early days of the family business, called Neilsen & Mills in 1919 when Hugh Oscar Mills partnered with a local shopowner in Halifax (photo credit: Janet MacLellan)


Not so long ago, Mills Brothers was the place to find the latest fashion trends. While the family-owned store is no longer operating, its almost century in business left a lasting impression.

Early partnership

Hugh Oscar Mills is credited for founding the longtime family business. With a dream of being a shopkeeper, he approached the owner of a dry goods store in Halifax about a partnership in 1919. The store was renamed Nielsen & Mills and the arrangement proved to be successful; revenue doubled the following year.

After Nielsen retired, Hugh approached his brother Willett Mills to join him as a business partner in 1928 and Mills Brothers was born. With Hugh’s big personality and Willett’s accounting expertise, the brothers made a great pair.


An old ad from Mills Brothers (“The House of Imports”), promoting its imported items from Europe and around the world (photo credit: Janet MacLellan)


Adding fashion

Originally a dry goods store, inventory at Mills Brothers expanded over time. In the ‘20s, customers could find fabric, thread, accessories and ready-to-wear women’s fashion. Hugh also saw an opportunity to add imported items from Europe and in the 1940s began travelling with his wife on buying trips.

With imported perfume, Venetian ornaments, fine china, silk stockings and other unique women’s wear in-store, Mills Brothers became known as ‘The House of Imports’. Heather MacLellan commented, “Mills Brothers was always well-known and respected as one of the busiest department stores east of Montréal. Everything in the shop was intentional.”

In the 1950s, Mills Brothers added a credit system (thanks to Willett’s accounting skills) and had European-style renovations. Mills Brothers also eventually expanded into menswear and in the ‘70s purchased surrounding buildings to add to its physical space.


Mill Brothers’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs window display, originally acquired from Germany in the 1950s, and still displayed during November and December for the holidays at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History (photo credit: Chris Muise at Saltwire Network)


Family service

Representing the second generation of the family business, Ian MacLellan took over as president of Mills Brothers and he and his wife Jane became sole owners in the 1980s. Jane and Ian’s daughters Janet, Heather and Kathryn also began working at the family business over time.

While speaking with Jane, Janet and Heather, the two daughters reminisced with their mother about working in the family business. Jane MacLellan jokingly said, “I’d always remind everyone at the dinner table to discuss something other than shop talk.” But the business was a large part of their lives. Heather and Janet fondly remember the excitement of new product launches, fashion shows, customer nights and other events at the store.

Janet MacLellan commented that their family strived to create “a welcoming environment for customers and treat them like family. Our customer service was a big reason for our success.”


Mills Brothers’ original location on Spring Garden Road in Halifax (photo credit: Janet MacLellan)


Still remembered

Due to the changing landscape of the retail industry, the MacLellan family sold Mills Brothers in 2007, which was relocated with new owners in 2012 and eventually closed its doors in 2015. The original location was scheduled to be demolished in 2020, with plans for a condo building to be constructed in its place, to be named the Mills Building in memory of the historic business.

Thinking of the family business, Heather and Janet commented: “It was an honour to work there. It’s brilliant to think about how it started in 1919 and the original concept was maintained through three generations of our family.”

Still remembered, 104 years later.

For more Web Exclusives, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment policy

Comments are moderated to ensure thoughtful and respectful conversations. First and last names will appear with each submission; anonymous comments and pseudonyms will not be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that Atlantic Business Magazine has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner it chooses. Publication of a comment does not constitute endorsement of that comment. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.


With ABM

Help support the magazine and entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada.


Stay in the Know

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to receive the magazine and gain access to exclusive online content.

    Your Cart
    Your cart is empty