Rising above the Bowery at 7th Street, in the heart of Cooper Square, Peter Cooper – in the form of a bronze statute – gazes upon his namesake street. Depicted in a high-backed chair and holding his characteristic cane in his left hand, Cooper appears larger than life. The statue appears to be a fitting tribute to the American philanthropist, inventor and manufacturer whose legacy includes Cooper Union, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and, of course his namesake Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village.
A Native New Yorker
Born February 12, 1791, in New York City, Peter Cooper came from English stock. His father, John Cooper, served in the Continental Army. Following the Revolutionary War, the elder Cooper was an entrepreneur, working as a hatter, brewer, storekeeper, and a brick-maker – often aided by his enterprising son.
Rising up the Ranks
As the younger Cooper grew into manhood, he displayed a sharp mind for business; as an employee and salesman he quickly rose up the ranks of small businesses in the New York area. By age 30, Cooper had amassed enough wealth to open his own glue factory. It proved a highly profitable venture; in fact, it was said that he held a monopoly on glue sales. But a sense of frugality characterized this self-made millionaire, who did his own bookkeeping, sales and administrative work.
Other blue-chip businesses followed the glue trade. Cooper backed the start-up Trenton Iron Company, then served as president of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company. His knack for invention and manufacturing helped save the failing Baltimore & Ohio Railroad when Cooper built the first steam locomotive in America.
The Father of Invention
Along with the steam locomotive, Cooper put his stamp on other innovations of the day. Among other accomplishments, he is credited with designing the first elevator shaft (15 years before the elevator was first put into use) and in 1845 patented “Peter Cooper’s Gelatine,” a dessert that would later be known as Jell-O.
Turning his attention from business to education, Cooper in 1859 founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, underscoring his efforts by proposing the then-radical notion that the school would be open to all who qualify without regard to gender, race, religion, income or social status. For the next 150 years, Cooper Union provided its qualified students with a free full-ride scholarship; only in 2013 was that policy rescinded due to budget considerations.
A lifelong follower of progressive politics, Peter Cooper stood for the abolition of slavery prior to the the Civil War, and organized the United States Indian Commission, dedicated to protecting and improving the lives of Native Americans. In 1840 he was made an alderman of New York City. Turning from state to national politics, Cooper was encouraged to run for president in 1876, making him at age 85 the oldest candidate to date. As a member of the third-party Greenbacks, however, Cooper netted only 82,640 votes. Cooper’s son, Edward, served as the mayor of New York City from 1879 to 1880.
A Legacy of Philanthropy and Family
Cooper devoted much of his life to philanthropic causes; according to Dictionary of American Biography, “he was an early advocate of paid police and fire departments, sanitary water conditions and public schools.” A devoted family man, Peter and his wife, Sarah, had six children, though only two survived past childhood. In 1897, four years after Cooper's death, his 4-year-old great-granddaughter Candace Hewitt unveiled the statue of Peter Cooper in the presence of some of New York City's leading figures.
Peter Cooper Village
Peter Cooper Village was named after Peter Cooper in his honor. Today, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town offer an urban oasis for New Yorkers living in the city. With parks, amenities, and spacious NYC no fee apartments along the East River, it is perfect place to call home. Call (877) 774-1849 today for more information.