First, for almost every correct pronunciation of the name “Cooper”- as enunciated by Tony Todd and Patricia Tallman, click here.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
Peter Cooper is a name known to modernity as a place name, and as the founder of the Cooper Union academy on the Bowery, and ephemerally as a product of a degenerate Dutch and Anglophile ruling class called the “Knickerbocracy“, which ran the City of New York well into the late 19th century.
He was a great deal more, and its odd that histories of the United States produced in the 20th century generally omit the name of this prominent industrialist- an opponent of slavery and proponent of Native American rights, father of a New York City Mayor and father in law of another Mayor- from discussion. His contributions to the Nation’s industrial history are similarly overlooked.
A Newtown Pentacle posting of June,4 2009 revealed that the origins of his great fortune were founded along the loathsome Newtown Creek, where his industrial operations chemically converted animal tissue and bodily waste into useful products like glue and Jell-O brand gelatin (as a note: if you enjoy gealtin treats, NEVER inquire as to what it is actually made from, or the methodologies employed in manufacture- for you will strike this item from your diet forever. I warn you, and point out that similar warnings against investigating the realities of Chimpanzee Attack have been proven out in the past).
Peter Cooper was a self-taught engineer, beloved philanthropist, presidential candidate and founder of the Cooper Union in New York City (the nation’s first free institution of higher learning).
Cooper had a number of patents and inventions to his credit. Builder and inventor of the famous “Tom Thumb” protoytpe locomotive, which was used to demonstrate the potential of steam-powered rail transport to leaders of the American transportation industry, he also obtained the very first American patent for the manufacture of gelatin (1845). He subsequently established a number of other patents for its manufacture and established manufacturing standards for its production. Some time later (1895), Pearl B. Wait, a cough syrup manufacturer, bought the patent from Peter Cooper and adapted Cooper’s gelatin dessert into an entirely prepackaged form, which his wife, May David Wait, named “Jell-O.” The rest is history…
- photo by Mitch Waxman
Cooper was instrumental to the B&O railroad, instigated the installation of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, and ran for president of the United States at the age of 85. The statue pictured above is sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and can be found alongside the Cooper Union university building in Manhattan. It shows a promethean and physically robust specimen, which is a somewhat inaccurate visual description. Thanks to the archives at that august academy of the arts, photos of the great man in life are available.
Influenced by the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Cooper became involved in the Indian reform movement, organizing the privately funded United States Indian Commission. This organization, whose members included William E. Dodge and Henry Ward Beecher, was dedicated to the protection and elevation of Native Americans in the United States and the elimination of warfare in the western territories. Cooper’s efforts led to the formation of the Board of Indian Commissioners, which oversaw Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy. Between 1870 and 1875, Cooper sponsored Indian delegations to Washington, D.C., New York City, and other Eastern cities. These delegations met with Indian rights advocates and addressed the public on United States Indian policy. Speakers included: Red Cloud, Little Raven and Alfred B. Meacham and a delegation of Modoc and Klamath Indians.
Cooper was an ardent critic of the gold standard and the debt-based monetary system of bank currency. Throughout the depression from 1873-78, he said that usury was the foremost political problem of the day. He strongly advocated a credit-based, Government-issued currency of United States Notes. He outlined his ideas in his 1883 book Ideas for a Science of Good Government.
photo from cooper.edu
- photo by Mitch Waxman
The 6.5 acre site of Cooper’s glue factory, which picked up stakes and left Brooklyn in 1895, was sold by his descendants to the City of Brooklyn for $55,000 (that’s $55,000 in 1895, by the way). Today, it’s known as Cooper Park, which sits between Sharon and Olive Streets and Maspeth and Morgan Avenues in Greenpoint. The Glue factory was considered quote a nuisance by contemporaries- but one wonders how much of that reportage was driven by politics. Cooper was what modernity would classify as a liberal and progressive reformer, and was a bulwark against the trusts and Tammany. A powerful man gains powerful enemies- or as Stan Lee would put it- “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Peter was born in New York City to Methodists Margaret Campbell and John Cooper. Their home was opened to traveling clergy. Peter later recalled that his “father’s religion was of that kind that he feared everybody would go tumbling into hell.” Although he abandoned his father’s doctrine, he never strayed from the work ethic his father instilled in him from an early age.
John Cooper attempted several craft and merchandising occupations, with little success. Among other tasks, Peter had to “boil the hair out of the rabbit skins to be used in the manufacture of hats.” This experience may well have inspired his later invention of gelatin, made by boiling animal skin and connective tissue. He began inventing early in adolescence. He devised a machine for washing clothes, which aided his mother greatly. He helped his family by finding new ways to net wild pigeons, construct shoes, make bricks, and brew beer. So occupied, he had little opportunity for schooling. “My only recollection of being at school,” Cooper explained in his autobiography, “was at Peekskill [New York] about some three or four quarters and a part of the time it was half-day school.” As he began to hone his entrepreneurial skills, his lively curiosity nevertheless helped him to acquire an informal education.
In 1808 Cooper was apprenticed to a New York coachmaker. Although he showed promise in this trade, he declined to take the loan necessary to set himself up in the business. Instead he took a job in Hempstead, Long Island with a manufacturer of cloth-shearing machines. There he obtained a license to make and sell the machines in New York. He then designed, patented, and manufactured an improved version of the machine. He recalled that “the first money I received for the sale of my machines was from Mr. [Matthew] Vassar, of Poughkeepsie, who afterwards founded that noble institution for female education, called Vassar College.”
In 1813 Cooper married Sarah Raynor Bedell. Only two of their six children, Edward and Sarah Amelia, survived childhood. For a time he operated a grocery store in partnership with his brother-in-law. A jack-of-all-trades, he also ran factories to make furniture, glue, and isinglass. In 1828 he founded the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore, Maryland. This made his fortune. He set up other foundries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and a rolling mill in New York (which he later moved to Trenton, New Jersey).
In addition to the washing machine, Cooper invented a cutting device for lawn mowers, a torpedo boat, and the first American steam locomotive (named “Tom Thumb”). With his brother Thomas, in 1854 he manufactured the first iron structural beams. He also invented the first blast furnace, a compressed air engine for ferry boats, a water-powered device to move barges down the newly-constructed Erie Canal, a machine to grind and polish plate glass, and a musical cradle.
- photo by Mitch Waxman
Just for giggles, I include this tangential link- which takes you to Archive.org’s “Historic and Antiquarian Scenes in Brooklyn and its vicinity“. Examine the “Suydam House” section, which is the 1700 farmhouse that was commandeered in revolutionary times as a barracks for Hessian soldiers, uses phrases like “Dutch pertinacity” and discusses the history of the site that the Cooper Glue Factory would be built on. Notable moments in the english language found within include:
“It is built as was the invariable practice of the old Hollandish settlers, in a gentle depression of the ground, where it would be protected from the sweep of the dreaded north wind. The airy site and broad prospect which so entice the newer occupants of Brooklyn soil, had no attractions for the phlegmatic and comfort-loving Dutch race.”
“The Germans early entertained a fondness for the soil of Bushwick and Brooklyn, for even at this period they exhibited the strongest desire to escape from military control, and settle upon it. That they had then discovered its capacity for the manufacture and storage of lager beer is susceptible of some proof. Certainly all the frightful tortures which awaited the captured deserter did not deter them from attempting escape from British protection. Many of them settled in Brooklyn, and by their thrift and industry acquired not a little property.
One of the subjects of the Elector of Hesse Cassel, named Louis Warner, in some quiet Dutch fashion of his own, crept out of the watch and ward of his majesty, George the Third’s soldiers, who zealously endeavored to return the dear subjects of the Elector to his paternal care. Louis pursued the occupation of milkman for a long time on the Luqueer farm, in Bushwick, now nearly covered by the building of Peter Cooper’s glue factory, where he had bivouacked with his Hessian comrades for many months during the revolution. “
and finally from rebresearch.com, (click through to their page to see the various diagrams and photos referred to in the quotation)
1820-1865: Age 30, Peter Cooper buys a glue factory from Mr. Vreeland in Kipps Bay (Grammercy Park) Manhattan. Peter had bought glue from there knew the business to be a good one. He sells the grocery shortly thereafter to concentrate upgrading the glue factory. He’s nearly killed several times in this. As business expands he moves the glue factory to Burling Slip, Brooklyn and later to Maspeth, Queens. In Maspeth, Queens, near Newtown creek, Cooper builds the large facrtory shown in the picture below. Peter Cooper invents the double boiler, a major innovation (see figure) that avoids burning the glue by heating it directly with a fire. Instead, in the double boiler water is heated by coal fire, and steam from the hot water cooks the glue. The double boiler is used to this day thoughout the food industry, and steam remains the most popular heat transfer fluid throughout the chemical industry. Using the double boiler Peter Cooper’s begins to make glue in ten, different, standard grades. The lightest grade will be sold as edible gelatin as well as for glue use. Cooper invents a method for freeze-drying glue and similar products, 1845. (need technical details — how was this done in the 1800s?). Quality control is an important part of Cooper glue. Peter Cooper invents a vernier test for glue stiffness (see picture below); a weight is placed on a block of gelled gule, and one measures how far the weight sags. His test method for testing glue stiffness will be used till the 1950s.
Peter Cooper’s glue works also produces animal-fat based oils and chemical products. Of particular importance is Neat’s Foot Oil, a lighting and machine oil made from calves feet. It’s comparable to whale oil, and is still in use today. Peter Cooper invents American Isinglass, a brightener and clarifier derived from fish oil; it is cheaper than Russian Isinglass, used to clarify wine and deserts. In 1865 Cooper retires from active involvement in the glue business. He sells the main factory and land to his son, Edward, his agent, William Serrell, and their children for $200,000. At this point, the Glue Factory is probably the largest in the country, and perhaps in the world. It is selling approximately $200,000 worth of glue per year, with distribution from London to South America. In the 20th century the glue works would leave Queens for Gowanda, NY. There reamins a small monument to the factory in Maspeth, Queens. His Grandson, Peter Cooper Hewitt will patent an improved chiller table for gelatin making.