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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 615


This is the grave of Peter Cooper.

Born in 1791 in New York City, Cooper was adopted by a hatmaker and Methodist named John Cooper. He was a working class guy doing all sorts of jobs as a young man, everything from a brewer to a cabinet maker. He invented some sort of “endless chain” to pull barges along the Erie Canal, but was unable to sell the idea. He did make money though on one of the grossest trades of the early 19th century city–a glue factory next to the slaughterhouse district. This was both profitable and disgusting, leading to the pond where he dumped everything being backfilled in 1839 because it was too close to the city. But he was very good at running this and became the city’s leading supplier for the leather and paint industries. He then invested heavily in lands next to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and developed an engine for it. This was the famous Tom Thumb engine that proved that steam could power a locomotive on a steep grade, a major advancement in rail technology. He created a factory that used anthracite coal to puddle iron for the first time, later building a gigantic mill in Trenton, New Jersey that employed 2,000 men. He also developed patents on gelatin which he sold to the people who created Jell-O. In fact, it was Cooper’s own wife who gave the product its name. He and his friends created the American Telegraph Company, playing a major role in the development of the transatlantic telegraph cable.

A rich man by the 1830s and a much, much richer one after that, Cooper committed himself to reform efforts. He dressed plainly and did not live in a huge mansion. He was an active abolitionist, a paper money advocate, and an Indian reformer. He helped organize the United States Indian Commission, which by modern standards is not some paragon of racial justice, but was at least opposed to the slaughter of Native Americans and was influential in Grant’s peace policy of the 1870s. That in itself was not actually that peaceful, but in the context of the times, it was something. Moreover, that paper money advocacy made him anathema to the liberals of the day, who in modern parlance would be free market conservatives of the Milton Friedman type, people hated paper money, loved the gold standard, and despised Ulysses S. Grant. In 1876, Cooper ran for the presidency under the Greenback Party ticket. He was 85 years old and it was one of the many, many one-off third party runs of the Gilded Age, but it was a sign of his importance as a reformer. The next year, he published a book of his writings and thoughts, titles The Political and Financial Opinions of Peter Cooper. Read it if you want.

Perhaps Cooper is most known today for the creation of Cooper Union. Among Cooper’s many reform interests was education, especially of adults, which was lacking in the mid-19th century. He wanted to establish an institution for free practical education for adults. He broke ground on what became Cooper Union in 1853 and it opened in 1859, having spent $600,000 of his own money. Women were allowed to attend classes, though 95% of the students were men. He also started the Women’s School of Design, which is better described as a sort of finishing school for non-wealthy women, teaching them artistic skills. Cooper Union became a place for radical speeches in New York, a site where anything could be debated. Because it was strictly non-sectarian in a very sectarian period, it served an extremely important function in the second half of the nineteenth century. The school remained tuition free all the way until 2014. In short, Cooper was one of the only rich guys in the Gilded Age who was not a complete scumbag.

Peter Cooper also developed arguably the greatest neck beard in American history.

Cooper died in 1883, at the age of 92.

Peter Cooper is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other 19th century reformers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frances Willard is in Chicago and George Ripley is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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