Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Peter Cooper

Who, indeed, is there who has not heard of Peter Cooper? He was born in the city of New York in 1791. His father was a man who possessed some ability, but was so inconstant that the poor boy received only about six months’ schooling, and he received that before he was eight years old.

Reader, think of it; can you make yourself believe that his great riches came through ‘good luck’? we will see: His father, being a hatter, little Peter was early employed pulling the hair off the rabbit skins to obtain material with which to make the hats. In the course of time his father moved to Peekskill, and at seventeen Peter resolved to strike out into the world for himself. He returned to his native city and apprenticed himself to the firm of Burtis & Woodward. Here he remained four years where he acquired a thorough mastery of the coach-making trade. In addition to his board he received during his apprenticeship the sum of twenty-five dollars per year with which to clothe himself. Although he had spent four long years learning the trade of coach-making he, for some reason, determined not to make that his calling for life. Accordingly he went to Hempstead, Long Island, and there he met a party who was manufacturing a patent shears for shearing cloth. To this man he engaged himself at $1.50 per day, where he remained until the business became unremunerative, a period of three years. He next turned his attention to the business of making and selling cabinet furniture; at the end of a year he sold out this business, and with his family returned to New York city.

He now entered the grocery business and the next year, seeing his opportunity, leased for a period of nineteen years a piece of land containing a few buildings. He now moved his grocery business into one of these buildings, subletting the others at a profit. His eyes were kept open, and he never let an opportunity slip by to turn an honest penny. There was a glue factory situated not far from his present location. True, it had never paid, and that seemed to be reason enough for all others, but Cooper made a study of the glue business. He satisfied himself that he could make it pay; he thought he could see where the trouble was with the present proprietor, and he bought it out, paying two thousand dollars, cash down, for it. By a progressive study of this new business he soon produced a better article than was made by others, and so materially reduced the price as to drive out foreign competition from the American markets. Of course, he made money, and when he saw that we paid Russia four dollars per pound for isinglass, he studied up on the manufacture of the same, and added that article to his business, and soon was enabled to sell it at less than ONE DOLLAR A POUND. It is needless to say that he succeeded in completely monopolizing the isinglass industry for a long time, and his profit on that one article would have made him a very rich man.

Mr. Cooper was an observing man; he saw and realized that our country was rich in mineral resources; especially was his attention drawn toward the iron deposits in Pennsylvania and neighboring States. He felt that there was big money in that business for the man who early entered the field; he felt that there would be money in it for Peter Cooper. These feelings made him an easy victim to two sharpers who one morning entered his premises and succeeded in getting him to invest $150,000 in a large tract of land, in Maryland, of some three thousand acres. He was told that this land was on a ‘boom,’ as the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, it was rumored, would soon be completed. The steep grades, however, and sharp curves, made it impossible for engines then known to make the road in safety. Indeed, it seemed that his land speculation was destined to prove a ‘White Elephant’ on his hands, and, with nine out of ten men it would have so proved, as they would have given up right here. Mr. Cooper set about this problem resolved to solve it. He soon saw that the success of the Baltimore and Ohio was the success of his speculation. The only thing needed to bring this success was an engine that could ascend the grades and turn the curves in safety.

He set to work patiently, and succeeded in inventing an engine that would do what was required of it, he, himself acting as engineer on its trial trip. This and other favorable influences which were brought about through the success of the railroad, ‘boomed’ his land in dead earnest this time. He next established an iron furnace on the site of his land and burned the wood for charcoal. The land went on up, and when it reached two hundred and thirty dollars per acre he sold out at an immense profit. He still continued in the iron business, and as he was always studying his business, he was the first man to roll out iron beams for fire-proof buildings. His iron industries spread all over Pennsylvania, and the business is to-day carried on by his successors. As is well-known, he was one of the warm supporters of Cyrus W. Field from first to last, extending his aid and sympathy. When the Bank of Newfoundland refused to honor the Cable Company’s paper Peter Cooper advanced the much needed funds. While all this business was on his mind his glue and isinglass industry was not in the least neglected. He had removed the works to Long Island, where it assumed mammoth proportions. The profits of this giant combination of business poured the money into his pockets in large streams.

One feature of the great success of Peter Cooper was he always paid cash. But the great life-work of Peter Cooper is embellished with one gem that is perpetually bright. We speak of Cooper Union. In 1854 the ground was cleared, the plans made and the work begun. This institution cost Cooper about eight hundred thousand dollars. It is deeded as a trust, with all its rents and profits, to the instruction and profit of the poor working people of New York city. Mr. Cooper himself thus describes his motives: “The great object that I desire to accomplish by the erection of this institution is to open the avenues of scientific knowledge to the youth of our city and country, and so unfold the volume of nature that the youth may see the beauties of creation, enjoy its blessings and learn to love the Author from whom cometh every good and perfect gift.” Could any sentiment be more beautiful? Could any motive be more worthy of imitation than this?

He was a Democrat and a member of Tammany Hall, but toward the latter part of his life he became a leader of the Greenback party, being a candidate for President on that ticket. He had good habits and was always occupied with business. Two children are living, Edward, and a daughter who married Mr. A. S. Hewitt. The son and son-in-law have each been mayor of their city. There was great mourning in New York city on April 4th, 1883, when it was learned that Peter Cooper was dead. But man liveth not to himself, his memory and influence will be felt by the countless generations which will follow after his death. Certain it is those who are benefited by the aid of “Cooper Union” will not forget their benefactor.

“There is a wide difference between men, but truly it lies less in some special gift or opportunity vouchsafed to one and withheld from another,—less in that than in the differing degree in which these common elements of human power are owned and used. Not how much talent have I, but how much will to use the talent that I have, is the main question. Not how much do I know, but how much do I do with what I know?”

On October 25th, 1806, in a an humble farmer’s home, was born a boy; that boy was George Law. For eighteen summers he lived contentedly on his father’s farm, but a stray volume, containing a story of a certain farmer boy who left home to seek his fortune, and after years of struggle returned rich, caught his eye, and young Law determined to go and do likewise. His education was meager, but he had mastered Daboll’s Arithmetic.

Having decided that he could not follow the occupation of his father, he set at work to raise the amount he deemed necessary to carry him to success. By exercising great frugality in his already simple mode of living, he managed to save forty dollars, and at the age of eighteen he set out on foot for Troy, New York, thirty-six miles distant. Putting up at the cheapest hotel he could find, he immediately went out in search of employment, which he soon found, beginning as a hod-carrier. He next obtained employment as a helper, laying brick and ‘picking up points,’ soon obtained employment as a mason at $1.75 per day.

But George Law did not mean to always be a day-laborer, he observed everything closely, and books were freely bought that would help him to a better understanding of his business. Seven long years of day-laboring, then he became a sub-contractor, then a contractor. His first efforts in this capacity was building bridges in various parts of Pennsylvania and although it has been said that he could not spell correctly any word in the English language, of three syllables, yet, so carefully were his plans laid that on every contract that he took he cleared money. He put in a bid for three sections of the Croton Aqueduct, and succeeded in obtaining the work on two of them. High Bridge was afterwards awarded to him, among a host of competitors, and was completed in ten years’ time from its beginning. These two contracts alone had made him a millionaire, but his active mind could not rest.

He first turned his attention to bank stocks. Next he became interested in the horse railway system of New York city. He bought the Staten Island Ferry, ran it five years, and sold out. He was also much interested in steam ships. Nearly all these ventures proved profitable, and at his death his estate amounted to about $15,000,000. He was a giant in size, being over six feet tall, and his mind compared favorably with his stature. His whole energies were concentrated on money-getting and, of course, he succeeded. It has been said that he walked until he could ride, and lived humbly until his wealth would more than warrant his living on Fifth Avenue. He carried the hod until he found better work, and never left one position until he had found a better one, no matter what his real or supposed provocation might be. He lived to return home, as did the boy of whom he early read, and established his father comfortably on a farm which he had bought for him.