April 4, 1883: Peter Cooper, the Unknown Great American

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A Brief History

On April 4, 1883, Peter Cooper died at the age of 92 in New York City, the same city he was born in. His legacy still affects us today, although many of our readers may not even be familiar with him. A businessman, inventor, philanthropist, and politician, Cooper left a positive influence on the United States of America that deserves remembering.

Digging Deeper

Born in New York, he was of English, Dutch and French ancestry, and was adopted as a baby. His father was a hat maker, and Peter continued in the trades, working in cabinetry, hat making, brewing and groceries, while all the time tinkering with things to make them better. One of his first innovations was a cloth shearing machine, and he also developed a continuous chain canal barge puller, though it was not a success. His first serious success came when he bought a glue factory in 1821 at the age of 30. For that business he invented various methods of producing glue and gelatin, isinglass and cements, and sold chemical concoctions to local paint producers and tanneries. His work with gelatin production was patented, and was eventually sold to the company that now makes Jell-0 gelatin in packages, a name coined by Cooper’s wife.

Sarah Cooper

Another famous company name associated with Peter Cooper is the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), familiar to anyone that ever played Monopoly. (B&O is the oldest railroad company in the United States that is still operating.) Cooper recognized the opportunity for a successful railroad and bought 3000 acres of land in Maryland in anticipation of the railroad driving up real estate prices (which it did). He also built the first steam railroad locomotive in the United States, a contraption he called Tom Thumb, which though cobbled from spare parts of various metal machines, was a big success. Cooper had discovered iron ore on his Maryland property, and saw the opportunity to enter the iron smelting business to make rails for the proposed railroad, another hugely successful business venture. Cooper pioneered the use of anthracite (hard) coal in iron smelting, the first to do so. He also founded a large glue company in Gowanda, New York, giving that town the title of Glue Capital of America. His real estate and insurance companies also prospered, making Cooper one of the richest men in New York, and thus in the United States. He also wisely jumped into the telegraph business and was one of the idea men behind the trans-Atlantic cable.

Cartoon of Peter Cooper by Thomas Nast

While Cooper was enjoying financial and business success, he was also politically active, having become an Alderman in New York in 1840. He was an abolitionist prior to the Civil War and staunchly pro-Union during the War. Cooper was active in the movement to benefit Native Americans that had become displaced, impoverished, and darn near killed off. He was also active in improving education in New York, and broke ground for the Cooper Union in 1853, finishing the building in 1859. Cooper Union School for the Advancement of Science and the Arts was founded as a school of many disciplines along the lines of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, offering free education for working class teens and young adults. Women were offered equal access to the schooling, though the student body remained mostly males. A respected college, Cooper Union offered free scholarships to ALL students until the fall of 2014. (Measures have been taken since to restore the free tuition model to the Cooper Union Institute.) The Great Hall in the Cooper Union is an iconic meeting place in New York City in which numerous presidents have made speeches, including Abraham Lincoln. Other famous speakers at Cooper Union include Mark Twain, Frederic Douglas, Elizabeth Stanton, Salman Rushdie, Ralph Nader, Hugo Chavez and Susan B. Anthony, an eclectic and important cast of people to say the least.

A proponent of a credit based national economy with government issued United States Notes instead of the Gold Standard, Cooper ran for President as the nominee of the Greenback Party in 1876 at the age of 85 years old, to this day still the oldest party nominee for President from any political party. Cooper’s philanthropy extended to orphans in the creation of the Children’s Village in 1851, one of the oldest non-profit charitable organizations in the United States.

Peter Cooper posed with a young child believed to be one of his granddaughters.

Cooper died at the age of 92 and is buried in Brooklyn. His legacy includes the B&O Railroad, Jell-O gelatin, Cooper Union, and several other places named in his honor. Question for students (and subscribers): Please tell us if you were aware of this fascinating and great American, and whether or not you have any interesting facts about him to share that we did not cover in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hubbard, Elbert. Peter Cooper. CreateSpace, 2015.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Leonard J. DeFrancisci of a medal designed by Anthony de Francisci from the Hall of Fame for Great Americans medal series produced by the Medalic Art Company, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.