Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Meet the 19th century’s tuition-waiving, gelatin-inventing Renaissance man

Peter Cooper did many remarkable things, not the least of which was growing this beard. (Photo: Brown Brothers)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Peter Cooper

What it’s about: While Ben Franklin is rightly considered the quintessential American Renaissance man, Peter Cooper may be his match. Born in 1791, the year after Franklin died, Cooper was also a businessman, inventor, and political figure who had a far-reaching influence on his contemporaries. Like Franklin, he didn’t attend college but founded a university. He also fought against slavery, fought for the rights of Native Americans, and ran a third-party campaign for president (see last week’s entry).


Strangest fact: While Cooper’s presidential run was a doomed effort intended to bring attention to the gold standard (Cooper was against it and ran on the Greenback Party ticket, promoting paper currency), his biggest influence on politics was through his kids. Cooper and Sarah Bedell had six children, but only two survived past age four. His son, Edward, was the 83rd mayor of New York City. His daughter, also named Sarah, married Abram Hewitt, who became the 87th mayor of New York. Their children, in turn, founded the Cooper Hewitt Museum, which became part of the Smithsonian in 1968.

An 1897 cartoon from Puck magazine, in which Peter Cooper spanks his son, the 83rd mayor of New York

Biggest controversy: In a time when skyrocketing tuition has been taken for granted across the country, students at the school Cooper founded were in an uproar in 2014, when Cooper Union raised its tuition above zero for the first time. As Cooper himself couldn’t afford formal schooling, he was passionate about giving others the chance he didn’t have. His business efforts made him one of the richest men in America (more on that later), and he used the bulk of his fortune to found a tuition-free college in 1859, in which of its 900 students, “only [those] are supposed to pay anything who are abundantly able, or prefer to do so.” The school began offering night classes to both men and women, a rarity at the time, and focused on arts and engineering. It remained tuition-free for over 150 years, surviving throughout on income from Cooper’s real estate holdings (including the land under the Chrysler Building) and alumni donations, but in 2009 the Union overspent on a new academic building, depleting the school’s finances to the point where it began charging tuition on a sliding scale. At present, plans are underway to rebuilt the Union’s finances and restore the tuition-free policy.

Cooper Union’s main building in New York’s East Village (Photo: David Shankbone/goo.gl/2jsJg0)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Cooper seemed to be good at everything he attempted, and he attempted a lot. While working various jobs making coaches, cabinets, hats, and beer, he also invented a cloth-shearing machine and a chain for pulling boats on the Erie Canal (Canal proponent De Witt Clinton approved, but Cooper wasn’t able to bring it to market). At age 30, Cooper bought a glue factory in Queens, where he invented new methods for producing glue, cement, gelatin, and isinglass, becoming rich in the process.

He used some of the profits to buy land in Maryland, convinced the new B&O Railroad would drive up the value. Cooper discovered iron ore on the property, so he built an iron works, hoping to sell to the new railroad. But when B&O’s trains had trouble reaching him, he invented his own: the Tom Thumb, the first American-made steam locomotive. He opened a processing plant for his iron in New York and was the first to use coal to puddle iron (a process that burns off impurities). In 1855, he co-founded the American Telegraph Company (later renamed Western Union) and personally supervised the laying of the first Transatlantic Cable three years later. He also sold his gelatin-making patent to a cough syrup company who renamed the finished product Jell-O.


Also noteworthy: Cooper’s philanthropic efforts weren’t limited to Cooper Union. He was a Unitarian and involved in applying Christian ideals to social justice. He was an outspoken abolitionist before the Civil War and fought for Native American rights at a time when the government was still at war with local populations in the Western territories. He paid to bring Red Cloud, Little Raven, and others to Washington to petition the government in person.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Cooper also intended his college to house public debates on controversies of the day. The Union’s Great Hall has hosted many notable speeches, including one of the most important (but lesser-known) in American history, a speech Abraham Lincoln made on the issue of slavery that became known as the Cooper Union Speech. Historians credit the speech with securing Lincoln the Republican nomination a few months later, and perhaps even the presidency. In it, he inveighs against the expansion of slavery to new states and territories (a long-standing goal of Southern Democrats) and insists that, no matter how many concessions Northern abolitionists make, the South would never be satisfied:

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please… you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us!


He likens the slavery faction to a highwayman, demanding his money or his life. “The threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.”

He ends by insisting that there can be no compromise on slavery. It’s morally wrong, and the South will accept no compromise even when offered. His call to arms—“Let us have faith that right makes might”—was much quoted and repeated and made Lincoln into a household name and the president that shepherded the nation through the very disunion he predicted in the speech itself.


Further down the Wormhole: Peter Cooper’s success with his iron works and locomotive qualified him as a successful industrialist, a rarified class of businessmen of far-reaching influence. A prominent industrialist from a subsequent generation was Aristotle Onassis, the second husband of Jackie Kennedy. Her first husband, John F. Kennedy, was the first president to work from the Resolute desk, an iconic piece of furniture that sits in the Oval Office to this day. We’ll discuss it in the waning days before Donald Trump has it gold-plated.

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