- Historic Sites
How Peter Cooper managed to make himself deeply rich and deeply beloved at the same time
October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
It’s a story that has been told many times. The Hewlett-Packard Company was founded by two gifted tinkerers, David Packard and William Hewlett, in a garage in PaIo Alto, California, in 1938, with $538 in capital. Its first product was an audio oscillator for testing sound equipment. Walt Disney quickly ordered eight of the devices to help in the production of Fantasia , and the company never looked back.
While Hewlett concentrated on the product side of the business, Packard headed the business side and ran a notably tight ship. (In 1961, when the company went public, several high executives, who were staying at a midtown hotel in New York, had to make their way to Wall Street for the ceremony via subway instead of a taxi, let alone a limousine. Unfortunately for them, the New York subway is distinctly stranger-unfriendly, and they got lost switching trains at Times Square.) But despite the occasional misplaced executive, Packard’s methods were very successful. Today Hewlett-Packard is a thirty-one-billiondollar-a-year company employing thousands and doing its part to assure that the United States will maintain its lead in the dominant technology of the twenty-first century.
But if Packard was frugal about spending money, he was fabulously generous about giving it away. When he died this spring, at the age of eightythree, he left the bulk of his fortune to the foundation that he and his wife had established and already endowed with more than a billion dollars. Thus the David and Lucile Packard Foundation enters the ranks of the great American eleemosynary institutions created in the twentieth century, along with the Carnegie Endowment and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.
But the men who founded these mighty institutions were hardly the first to use their wealth to help their fellow humans. Most of the great museums of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere, after all, were built and filled with the donations of the very rich. One of the earliest of these national benefactors was a man now largely forgotten, except by New Yorkers, who see his name often around the great city. That name is Peter Cooper.
Like Packard, Cooper was a born tinkerer, frugal when spending money, and liberal when giving it away. Like Packard, he used these attributes to make and then distribute one of the great American fortunes.
Cooper was born in 1791 in New York City, the fifth child of nine in the family. His father, who had served as a lieutenant in the Continental Army, had a series of businesses, working as a hatter, a brewer, a storekeeper, and a brickmaker. He was not very successful in any of them, but his son helped him from a very young age and so grew up deeply familiar with smallscale industrial processes as well as the details of business keeping. In addition, he helped his mother around the house, including with the laundry. He soon invented a device for pounding the dirty clothes, perhaps the world’s first washing machine.
Unfortunately, unlike David Packard, who received a world-class education in engineering at Stanford University, his family’s relative poverty did not allow Cooper to get more than about a year of formal schooling. But that was not uncommon at the turn of the nineteenth century, and engineering was a much simpler business then as well. When he was seventeen, he was apprenticed to a carriage maker in New York City. During his apprenticeship he spent much time teaching himself by reading, and he even paid for private tutors in the evening. This gave him the idea of evening classes to let working people gain a formal education. It was an idea that would blossom fifty years later into Cooper’s greatest legacy, and it is now so common that it is hard to believe somebody had to think of it in the first place.
His apprenticeship agreement called for him to be paid twenty-five dollars a year and given a room rent-free, but he was soon so useful that his employer voluntarily doubled and then tripled his pay. At the end of Cooper’s apprenticeship at age twenty-one, the carriage maker offered to lend him the money he needed to set himself up in the carriage-making business, but Cooper declined. He didn’t want to be in debt, for he had already learned to be very cautious about money. “I used to pay all my debts every Saturday night,” he remembered as an old man, “and I knew that what I had left was my own!”
Cooper went to work in a woolen factory, again made himself indispensable, and was soon being paid at the rate of $1.50 a day, then very good wages.
When he was twenty-two, Cooper married Sarah Bedell. It was to be a happy union, one that lasted fifty-six years and produced six children, although only two lived to adulthood. But Cooper felt himself to be drifting. Late in life he said that he spent the first thirty years of his life getting a start, the next thirty making a fortune, and the last thirty doing good with that fortune. Thus he dated the start of his great success to the year he acquired a glue factory. He got it at a discount because he paid two thousand dollars in cash. So, actually, he had already acquired far more capital than the average man of his day.
Glue was not a very glamorous business, but Cooper suspected it would be a very profitable one. He was right. The factoTy was located at a place that was then deep in the countryside but that is today Thirty-second Street and Park Avenue. Cooper immediately threw himself into both running the business and improving his product line. At the time, American-manufactured glue was of very poor quality, and most glue was imported from Europe at high prices.