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The Honest Man
In a day of rampant money-making, gentle Peter Cooper was not only a reformer but successful, widely loved, and rich.
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
The tonic note of Cooper’s eventful and empirical career was struck when he was still in short pants. His mother required him to help with the family wash: dull work, pounding dirty clothes in a barrel of soapy water; the same dreary chore performed once a week by thousands of groaning, arm-weary boys all over the country, and by them accepted as inevitable. But young Cooper, being an original, was bound to tinker with the inevitable, to take it apart and remake it, testing whether it might not be made to work better. He actually contrived a primitive washing machine, involving a geared wheel, double lever, and ratchet, thereby cutting his labor in half and washing the clothes cleaner and quicker.
When, at seventeen, he apprenticed himself for four years to a New York carriage maker, signing on for his board and twenty-five dollars a year, his virtues throbbed monotonously. There were at the time some 3,500 oases serving strong drink in New York, or about one for every four families, nor were the brothelkeepers behindhand. But, Cooper related later, while the other apprentices were “in the habit of going out nights to indulge in sports of all kinds,” he retired to a monastic chamber provided him by his grandmother, where he carved wood, pored over the Bible, and committed to memory long passages from Pope or Burns.
The truth was, he was ashamed of himself; ashamed of his lack of education, of his lack of polish and urbanity; ashamed, for he was a hayseed—born in New York, to be sure, but reared in the wilderness up the Hudson River Valley near Peekskill. He felt himself a bumpkin; with a certain low skill at mechanical contrivances, perhaps, but no fit company for his fellows at the taphouse or bagnio.
There were, however, compensations. “I was always fussing and contriving,” he said later, “and was never satisfied unless I was doing something difficult—something that had never been done before, if possible.” He devised a machine for mortising the hubs of carriages, a contrivance his employer was happy to buy from him. He attempted to convert the power from the tides of the East River into compressed air, and thus drive the ferries from New York to Brooklyn. After rejecting his employer’s offer to set him up in trade, he invented first a lawn mower (never, however, patented), then a mechanically-rocked cradle fitted with “a musical instrument that would sing the child to sleep” and a cloth to “keep the flies off the little one.” This anticipation of Rube Goldberg he called a “Pendulous & Musical Cradle,” and traded his Connecticut rights in it to a peddler who offered his horse and wagon and all it contained in exchange. Since there was a hurdy-gurdy in the wagon, Cooper concluded he got the better of the trade.
There were other inventions: an endless chain, powered by water elevated in the locks, to haul canalboats along the brand-new Erie Canal; and a rotary steam engine. Both these contraptions seem to have had merit but, for one reason or another, neither was in a way of making Cooper any money. He was drifting: in ten years he had gone from carriage maker to machinist to cabinetmaker to grocer; he was in danger of becoming that familiar figure, the handy man who is all dreams but no dollars. Any adept of the then infant science, phrenology, might by palpating his pate have diagnosed the difficulty: where he should have had a Bump of Acquisitiveness, instead there was a crater. Invent, yes; exploit, no. But all at once, in 1821, chance proffered him a gilt-edged proposition: a successful business enterprise, priced at only $2,200. Cooper snatched at it so quickly that, since he offered cash down, he was able to get it for $2,000.
He was now thirty years old, and for the next thirty-odd years this enterprise would make him a great deal of money and would, indeed, be the cornerstone of his substantial fortune. And what was this business? It was making glue.
Now there is patently nothing offensive, nor disgraceful, nor ridiculous about the manufacture of glue. Glue is a useful commodity, even necessary to a great many folk; glue, in its humble fashion, holds our society together. Having said all of this, it must be admitted that a Glue King sounds like a character out of P. G. Wodehouse. Arid not only today: in his own time New York’s Knickerbocker society fleered at Cooper and called him “the self-made millionaire glueboiler.”
Fortunately, being armored with a powerful humorlessness, Cooper could ignore the gibes and settle down to making money. In his fragrant business, he was presently associated with some important figures of New York’s financial future: Henry Astor, John Jacob’s brother, was the town’s biggest wholesale butcher, and from him Cooper purchased cattle hoofs and heads; the cattle yards and the cattle drovers’ favorite rendezvous, the Bull’s Head Tavern, up in the country at 24th Street and Third Avenue, were both owned by that unique amalgam of piety and rascality, Dan Drew.