On an April morning in 1883 I was seated at breakfast in a room which commanded a view of the tall flag-staff in Gramercy Park in the city of New York. I noticed some men unfolding the flag and raising it on the mast. The flag stopped mid-way and dropped motionless in the still spring morning. The newspapers which were scattered about the room made no mention of the death of any person of note and yet this sign of mourning needed no explanation. For half a lifetime Peter Cooper had lived in a great, square, handsome house just round the corner, and the condition of the aged philanthropist had been reported about the neighborhood from hour to hour during the previous days; so that almost every one who saw the flag uttered words similar to those which I heard at the moment: –
„He is gone, then! The good old man is gone. We shall never see his snowy locks again, nor his placid countenance, nor his old horse and gig jogging by. Peter Cooper is dead!”
He had breathed his last about three o’clock that morning, after the newspapers had gone to press; but the tidings spread with strange rapidity. When I went out of the house two hours later, the whole city seemed hung with flags at half-mast; for there is probably no city in the world which has so much patriotic bunting at command as New York. Passengers going north and west observed the same tokens of regard all along the lines of railroad. By mid-day the great State of New York, from the Narrows to the lakes, and from the lakes to the Pennsylvania line, exhibited everywhere the same mark of respect for the character of the departed. A tribute so sincere, so spontaneous and so universal, has seldom been paid to a private individual.
It was richly deserved. Peter Cooper was a man quite out of the common order even of good men. His munificent gift to the public, so strikingly and widely useful, has somewhat veiled from public view his eminent executive qualities, which were only less exceptional than his moral.
I once had the pleasure of hearing the story of his life related with some minuteness by a member of his own family, now honorably conspicuous in public life, and I will briefly repeat it here. More than ninety years ago, when John Jacob Astor kept a fur store in Water Street, and used to go round himself buying his furs of the Hudson River boatmen and the western Indians, he had a neighbor who bought beaver skins of him, and made them into hats in a little shop near by, in the same street. This hat-maker, despite his peaceful occupation, was called by his friends Captain Cooper, for he had been a good soldier of the Revolution, and had retired, after honorable service to the very end of the war, with a captain’s rank. Captain Cooper was a better soldier than man of business. Indeed, New York was then a town of but twenty-seven thousand inhabitants, and the field for business was restricted. He was an amiable, not very energetic man; but he had had the good fortune to marry a woman who supplied all his deficiencies. The daughter of one of the colonial mayors of New York, she was born on the very spot which is now the site of St. Paul’s Church at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, and her memory ran back to the time when the stockade was still standing which had been erected in the early day as a defense against the Indians.
There is a vivid tradition in the surviving family of Peter Cooper of the admirable traits of his mother. She was educated among the Moravians in Pennsylvania, who have had particular success in forming and developing the female character. She was a woman in whom were blended the diverse qualities of her eminent son, energy and tenderness, mental force and moral elevation. She was the mother of two daughters and seven sons, her fifth child being Peter, who was born in 1791.
To the end of his life, Peter Cooper had a clear recollection of many interesting events which occurred before the beginning of the present century.
„I remember,” he used to say, „that I was about nine years old at the time when Washington was buried. That is, he was buried at Mount Vernon; but we had a funeral service in old St. Paul’s. I stood in front of the church, and I recall the event well, on account of his old white horse and its trappings.”
A poor hatter, with a family of nine children, must needs turn his children to account, and the consequence was that Peter Cooper enjoyed an education which gave him at least great manual dexterity. He learned how to use both his hands and a portion of his brain. He learned how to do things. His earliest recollection was his working for his father in pulling, picking, and cleaning the wool used in making hat-bodies, and he was kept at this work during his whole boyhood, except that one year he went to school half of every day, learning a little arithmetic, as well as reading and writing. By the time he was fifteen years old he had learned to make a good beaver hat throughout, and a good beaver hat of that period was an elaborate and imposing structure.
Then his father abandoned his hat shop and removed to Peekskill on the Hudson, where he set up a brewery, and where Peter learned the whole art and mystery of making beer. He was quick to learn every kind of work, and even as a boy he was apt to suggest improvements in tools and methods. At the age of seventeen, he was still working in the brewery, a poor man’s son, and engaged in an employment which for many and good reasons he disliked. Brewing beer is a repulsive occupation.
Then, with his father’s consent, he came alone to New York, intending to apprentice himself to any trade that should fake his fancy. He visited shop after shop, and at last applied for employment at a carriage factory near the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. He remembered, to his ninetieth year, the substance of the conversation which passed between him and one of the partners in this business.
„Have you room for an apprentice?” asked Peter.
„Do you know anything about the business?” was the rejoinder.
The lad was obliged to answer that he did not.
„Have you been brought up to work?”
He replied by giving a brief history of his previous life.
„Is your father willing that you should learn this trade?”
„He has given me my choice of trades.”
„If I take you, will you stay with me and work out your time?”
He gave his word that he would, and a bargain was made – twenty-five dollars a year, and his board. He kept his promise and served out his time. To use his own language: –
„In my seventeenth year I entered as apprentice to the coach-making business, in which I remained four years, till I became ‚of age.’ I made for my employer a machine for mortising the hubs of carriages, which proved very profitable to him, and was, perhaps, the first of its kind used in this country. When I was twenty-one years old my employer offered to build me a shop and set me up in business, but as I always had a horror of being burdened with debt, and having no capital of my own, I declined his kind offer. He himself became a bankrupt. I have made it a rule to pay everything as I go. If, in the course of business, anything is due from me to any one, and the money is not called for, I make it my business oh the last Saturday before Christmas to take it to his business place.”
It was during this period of his life, from seventeen to twenty-one, that he felt most painfully the defects of his education. He had acquired manual skill, but he felt acutely that this quality alone was rather that of a beaver than of a man. He had an inquisitive, energetic understanding, which could not be content without knowledge far beyond that of the most advanced beaver. Hungering for such knowledge, he bought some books: but in those days there were few books of an elementary kind adapted to the needs of a lonely, uninstructed boy. His books puzzled more than they enlightened him; and so, when his work was done, he looked about the little bustling city to see if there was not some kind of evening school in which he could get the kind of help he needed. There was nothing of the kind, either in New York or in any city then. Nor were there free schools of any kind. He found a teacher, however, who, for a small compensation, gave him instruction in the evening in arithmetic and other branches. It was at this time that he formed the resolution which he carried out forty-five years later. He said to himself: –
„If ever I prosper in business so as to acquire more property than I need, I will try to found an institution in the city of New York, wherein apprentice boys and young mechanics shall have a chance to get knowledge in the evening.”
This purpose was not the dream of a sentimental youth. It was a clear and positive intention, which he kept steadily in view through all vicissitudes until he was able to enter upon its accomplishment.
He was twenty-one years of age when the war of 1812 began, which closed for the time every carriage manufactory in the country. He was therefore fortunate in not having accepted the proposition of his employer. During the first months of the war business was dead; but as the supply of foreign merchandise gave out an impulse was given to home manufacture, especially of the fabrics used in clothing. There was a sudden demand for cloth-making machinery of all kinds, and now Peter Cooper put to good use his inventive faculty. He contrived a machine for cutting away the nap on the surface of cloth, which answered so well that he soon had a bustling shop for making the machines, which he sold faster than he could produce. He found himself all at once in an excellent business, and in December, 1813, he married Miss Sarah Bedel of Hempstead, Long Island; he being then twenty-two and she twenty-one.
There never was a happier marriage than this. To old age, he never sat near her without holding her hand in his. He never spoke to her nor of her without some tender epithet. He attributed the great happiness of his life and most of his success to her admirable qualities. He used to say that she was „the day-star, the solace, and the inspiration” of his life. She seconded every good impulse of his benevolence, and made the fulfillment of his great scheme possible by her wise and resolute economy. They began their married life on a scale of extreme frugality, both laboring together for the common good of the family.
„In early life,” he used to say, „when I was first married, I found it necessary to rock the cradle, while my wife prepared our frugal meals. This was not always convenient in my busy life, and I conceived the idea of making a cradle that would be made to rock by mechanism. I did so, and enlarging upon my first idea, I arranged the mechanism for keeping off the flies, and playing a music-box for the amusement of the baby! This cradle was bought of me afterwards by a delighted peddler, who gave me his ‚whole stock in trade’ for the exchange and the privilege of selling the patent in the State of Connecticut.”
This device in various forms and modifications is still familiar in our households. They had six children, of whom two survive, Mr. Edward Cooper, recently mayor of New York, and Sarah, wife of Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, member of Congress from the city of New York. For nearly sixty-five years this couple lived together in happy marriage.
In 1815 the peace with Great Britain, which gave such ecstasies of joy to the whole country, ruined Peter Cooper’s business; as it was no longer possible to make cloth in the United States with profit. With three trades at his finger ends, he now tried a fourth, cabinet-making, in which he did not succeed. He moved out of town, and bought the stock of a grocer, whose store stood on the very site of the present Cooper Institute, at that time surrounded by fields and vacant lots. But even then he thought that, by the time he was ready to begin his evening school, that angle of land would probably be an excellent central spot on which to build it.
He did very well with his grocery store; but it never would have enabled him to endow his Institute. One day when he had kept his grocery about a year, and used his new cradle at intervals in the rooms above, an old friend of his accosted him, as he stood at the door of the grocery.
„I have been building,” said his visitor, „a glue factory for my son; but I don’t think that either he or I can make it pay. But you are the very man to do it.”
„I’ll go and see it,” said Peter Cooper.
He got into his friend’s wagon and they drove to the spot, which was near the corner of Madison Avenue and Twenty-ninth Street, almost on the very spot now occupied by an edifice of much note called „The Little Church Round the Corner.” He liked the look of the new factory, and he saw no reason why the people of New York should send all the way to Russia for good glue. His friend asked two thousand dollars for the establishment as it stood, and Peter Cooper chanced to have that sum of money, and no more. He bought the factory on the spot, sold his grocery soon, and plunged into the manufacture of glue, of which he knew nothing except that Russian glue was very good and American very bad.
Now he studied the composition of glue, and gradually learned the secret of making the best possible article which brought the highest price in the market. He worked for twenty years without a book-keeper, clerk, salesman, or agent. He rose with the dawn. When his men came at seven o’clock to work, they found the factory fires lighted, and it was the master who had lighted them. He watched closely and always the boiling of his glue, and at mid-day, when the critical operation was over, he drove into the city and went the round of his customers, selling them glue and isinglass, and passed the evening in posting his books and reading to his family.
He developed the glue business until it yielded him a profit of thirty thousand dollars a year. He soon began to feel himself a capitalist, and to count the years until he would be able to begin the erection of the institution he had in his mind. But men who are known to have capital are continually solicited to embark in enterprises, and he was under a strong temptation to yield to such solicitations, for the scheme which he had projected would involve a larger expenditure than could be ordinarily made from one business in one lifetime. He used to tell the story of his getting into the business of making iron, which was finally a source of great profit to him.
„In 1828,” he would say, „I bought three thousand acres of land within the city limits of Baltimore for $105,000. When I first purchased the property it was in the midst of a great excitement created by a promise of the rapid completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which had been commenced by a subscription of five dollars per share. In the course of the first year’s operations they had spent more than the five dollars per share. But the road had to make so many short turns in going around points of rocks that they found they could not complete the road without a much larger sum than they had supposed would be necessary; while the many short turns in the road seemed to render it entirely useless for locomotive purposes. The principal stockholders had become so discouraged that they said they would not pay any more, and would lose all they had already paid in. After conversing with them, I told them that if they would hold on a little while I would put a small locomotive on the road, which I thought would demonstrate the practicability of using steam-engines on the road, even with all the short turns in it. I got up a small engine for that purpose, and put it upon the road, and invited the stockholders to witness the experiment. After a good deal of trouble and difficulty in accomplishing the work, the stockholders came, and thirty-six men were taken into a car, and, with six men on the locomotive, which carried its own fuel and water, and having to go up hill eighteen feet to a mile, and turn all the short turns around the points of rocks, we succeeded in making the thirteen miles, on the first passage out, in one hour and twelve minutes, and we returned from Ellicott’s Mills to Baltimore in fifty-seven minutes. This locomotive was built to demonstrate that cars could be drawn around short curves, beyond anything believed at that time to be possible. The success of this locomotive also answered the question of the possibility of building railroads in a country scarce of capital, and with immense stretches of very rough country to pass, in order to connect commercial centres, without the deep cuts, the tunneling and leveling which short curves might avoid. My contrivance saved this road from bankruptcy.”
He still had his tract of Baltimore land upon his hands, which the check to the prosperity of the city rendered for the time almost valueless; so he determined to build ironworks upon it, and a rolling-mill. In his zeal to acquire knowledge at first hand, he had a narrow escape from destruction in Baltimore.
„In my efforts to make iron,” he said, „I had to begin by burning the wood growing upon the spot into charcoal, and in order to do that, I erected large kilns, twenty-five feet in diameter, twelve feet high, circular in form, hooped around with iron at the top, arched over so as to make a tight place in which to put the wood, with single bricks left out in different places in order to smother the fire out when the wood was sufficiently burned. After having burned the coal in one of these kilns perfectly, and believing the fire entirely smothered out, we attempted to take the coal out of the kiln; but when we had got it about half-way out, the coal itself took fire, and the men, after carrying water some time to extinguish it, gave up in despair. I then went myself to the door of the kiln to see if anything more could be done, and just as I entered the door the gas itself took fire and enveloped me in a sheet of flame. I had to run some ten feet to get out, and in doing so my eyebrows and whiskers were burned, and my fur hat was scorched down to the body of the fur. How I escaped I know not. I seemed to be literally blown out by the explosion, and I narrowly escaped with my life.”
The ironworks were finally removed to Trenton, New Jersey, where to this day, under the vigorous management of Mr. Hewitt and his partners, they are very successful.
During these active years Peter Cooper never for a moment lost sight of the great object of his life. We have a new proof of this, if proof were needed, in the Autobiography recently published of the eloquent Orville Dewey, pastor of the Unitarian Church of the Messiah, which Peter Cooper attended for many years.
„There were two men,” says Dr. Dewey, „who came to our church whose coming seemed to be by chance, but was of great interest to me, for I valued them greatly. They were Peter Cooper and Joseph Curtis. Neither of them then belonged to any religious society, or regularly attended any church. They happened to be walking down Broadway one Sunday evening, as the congregation were entering Stuyvesant Hall, where we then temporarily worshiped, and they said: –
„‚Let us go in here and see what this is.’
„When they came out, as they both told me, they said to one another: –
„‚This is the place for us!’
„And they immediately connected themselves with the congregation, to be among its most valued members. Peter Cooper was even then meditating that plan of a grand educational institute which he afterwards carried out. He was engaged in a large and successful business, and his one idea – which he often discussed with me – was to obtain the means of building that institute. A man of the gentlest nature and the simplest habits; yet his religious nature was his most remarkable quality. It seemed to breathe through his life as fresh and tender as if it were in some holy retreat, instead of a life of business.”
Indeed there are several aged New Yorkers who can well remember hearing Mr. Cooper speak of his project at that period.
After forty years of successful business life, he found, upon estimating his resources, that he possessed about seven hundred thousand dollars over and above the capital invested in his glue and iron works. Already he had become the owner of portions of the ground he had selected so long ago for the site of his school. The first lot he bought, as Mr. Hewitt informs me, about thirty years before he began to build, and from that time onward he continued to buy pieces of the ground as often as they were for sale, if he could spare the money; until in 1854 the whole block was his own.
At first his intention was merely to establish and endow just such an evening school as he had felt the need of when he was an apprentice boy in New York. But long before he was ready to begin, there were free evening schools as well as day schools in every ward of the city, and he therefore resolved to found something, he knew not what, which should impart to apprentices and young mechanics a knowledge of the arts and sciences underlying the ordinary trades, such as drawing, chemistry, mechanics, and various branches of natural philosophy.
While he was revolving this scheme in his mind he happened to meet in the street a highly accomplished physician who had just returned from a tour in Europe, and who began at once to describe in glowing words the Polytechnic School of Paris, wherein mechanics and engineers receive the instruction which their professions require. The doctor said that young men came from all parts of France and lived on dry bread, just to attend the Polytechnic.
He was no longer in doubt; he entered at once upon the realization of his project. Beginning to build in 1854, he erected a massive structure of brick, stone, and iron, six stories in height, and fire-proof in every part, at a cost of seven hundred thousand dollars, the savings of his lifetime up to that period. Five years after, he delivered the complete structure, with the hearty consent of his wife, his children, and his son-in-law, into the hands of trustees, thus placing it beyond his own control forever. Two thousand pupils at once applied for admission. From that day to this the Institute has continued from year to year to enlarge its scope and improve its methods. Mr. Cooper added something every year to its resources, until his entire gift to the public amounted to about two millions of dollars.
Peter Cooper lived to the great age of ninety-two. No face in New York was more familiar to the people, and surely none was so welcome to them as the benign, placid, beaming countenance of „Old Peter Cooper.” The roughest cartman, the most reckless hack driver would draw up his horses and wait without a word of impatience, if it was Peter Cooper’s quaint old gig that blocked the way. He was one of the most uniformly happy persons I have ever met, and he retained his cheerfulness to the very end. Being asked one day in his ninetieth year, how he had preserved so well his bodily and mental vigor, he replied: –
„I always find something to keep me busy; and to be doing something for the good of man, or to keep the wheels in motion, is the best medicine one can take. I run up and down stairs here almost as easily as I did years ago, when I never expected that my term would run into the nineties. I have occasional twinges from the nervous shock and physical injury sustained from an explosion that occurred while I was conducting some experiments with nitrogen gas years ago. In other respects my days pass as painlessly as they did when I was a boy carrying a grocer’s basket about the streets. It is very curious, but somehow, though I have none, of the pains and troubles that old men talk about, I have not the same luxury of life – the same relish in the mere act of living – that I had then. Age is like babyhood come back again in a certain way. Even the memories of baby-life come back – the tricks, the pranks, the boyish dreams; and things that I did not remember at forty or fifty years old I recollect vividly now. But a boy of ninety and a boy of nine are very different things, none the less. I never felt better in my life except for twinges occasioned by my nitrogen experiment. But still I hear a voice calling to me, as my mother often did, when I was a boy ‚Peter, Peter, it is about bed-time,’ and I have an old man’s presentiment that I shall be taken soon.”
He loved the Institute he had founded to the last hour of his consciousness. A few weeks before his death he said to Reverend Robert Collyer: –
„I would be glad to have four more years of life given me, for I am anxious to make some additional improvements in Cooper Union, and then part of my life-work would be complete. If I could only live four years longer I would die content.”
Dr. Collyer adds this pleasing anecdote: –
„I remember a talk I had with him not long before his death, in which he said that a Presbyterian minister of great reputation and ability, but who has since died, had called upon him one day and among other things discussed the future life. They were old and tried friends, the minister and Mr. Cooper, and when the clergyman began to question Mr. Cooper’s belief, he said: ‚I sometimes think that if one has too good a time here below, there is less reason for him to go to heaven. I have had a very good time, but I know poor creatures whose lives have been spent in a constant struggle for existence. They should have some reward hereafter. They have worked here; they should be rewarded after death. The only doubts that I have about the future are whether I have not had too good a time on earth.'”
He died in April, 1883, from a severe cold which he had not the strength to throw off. His end was as peaceful and painless as his life had been innocent and beneficial.
 A noted philanthropist of that day, devoted to the improvement of the public schools of the city.