Wednesday, September 7, 2011

White Bronze Memorials

Every once in a while in my cemetery travels I’ll encounter a zinc monument amidst all the stone ones. You may have walked right past one yourself and taken it for granite (small joke there), but this light bluish gray material is actually metal. Perhaps you’ve knocked on one and noted its clanking hollowness. Sometimes called white bronze (to make them sound fancy), these memorials have a rather interesting history.

You may only find a couple of them in any given cemetery, interspersed with the hundreds of marble, granite, and slate grave markers. Their relative scarcity is due to the fact that they were only manufactured (in the U.S.) for about forty years (between 1870 and 1912). Given that the U.S. has about 330 years worth of cemeteries, forty years is not a long time. Interestingly, the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester N.Y. actually mapped out the locations of the zinc monuments in that cemetery!

Where did zinc monuments come from, you may ask? And why were they around for only forty years? Well, catalogs, and because forty years is the period of time the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport Connecticut, was in the business of making them. That could really be the end of this blog, but you know me better than that! I can just go on and on ….

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
(According to Samuel Orcutt in his History of Monumental Bronze) M.A. Richardson and C.J. Willard perfected the method of casting molten zinc in 1873, with the intent of using the material as funerary monuments. They ran out of money, however, and sold the process before they could bring their dream to fruition. The idea was to offer customers a cheap, yet elegant, alternative to stone. This was the heyday of Victorian cemeteries in the U.S. and all God’s children wanted fabulously ornate monuments for their family plots. Unfortunately for the eventual manufacturers, the Monumental Bronze Company (which made all of the monuments), the idea never quite caught on.

What’s Wrong with Zinc?

Zinc Jesus on Iron Cross
Compared to marble or granite sculpture, zinc does look rather cheesy (which may have been part of the reason "white bronze" monuments were banned from some cemeteries). However, the main concern of the buying public was that zinc wouldn’t last as long as stone! Perhaps there were doubts about the manufacturer’s insistence that the metal would not rust. A hundred and forty years later, the company’s claims of longevity have certainly been borne out. These monuments seem to have weathered as well as any carved stone memorial.

“A Thing of the Past”
The monuments were actually cast, which means a mold was used (standard design or customized with names and dates created by an artist at Monumental Bronze), into which was poured molten zinc. In the case of a small flush-to-the-ground marker like the one you see at right (typically costing around six dollars), this was a one-step process.

Lawrenceville Cemetery, New Jersey
For more elaborate structures, several pieces were made, then either zinc-welded or bolted together. This way, monuments could be as large as twenty feet high. Flat packaging the sides allowed the manufacturer to easily ship the monuments to any of its subsidiaries across the U.S. Decorative plates (of mourning symbolism) could be later replaced with ones bearing the name of a future deceased family member. The design was actually much more flexible than stone carving!

Charlotte Cemetery, Rochester, NY (Dorothy Loney)
As you can see from the holes in this memorial at right, such a design unfortunately invites vandalism as well. It also brings to mind the rumor that bootleggers used these zinc memorials to hide their bottles during prohibition!

 City Cemetery, San Antonio, TX
Zinc-welding, a process perfected by Richardson and Willard, is part of the reason such three-dimensional castings as the one at the beginning of this article (in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA) have endured the ravages of time, tree branches, and ground settlement even better than stone. Part of the reason might be their weight. Some friends of mine tried to lift a fallen one to an upright position recently and were surprised at how heavy it was. Even though these monuments are hollow, zinc is actually heavier than iron! Still, some do suffer irreparable damage (its a conservator's nightmare to fix one of these), as you can see in this photo of the angel with its broken wings

Fountian Cemetery, Forstria, OH (Jeff Ronald)
Richardson and Willard's patented zinc-welding process has held up very well. According to Barbara Rotundo, it involved heating molten zinc much higher than its melting point and pouring it into the joint between the cast pieces. This melted the surface of the quarter-inch thick pieces and fused them more solidly than soldering would have done. This way, very large monuments could be made from smaller pieces, allowing the fine detail you see in this portrait at left. I like the caption under the relief, "FROM A PHOTO TAKEN IN 1865." Here's where my misguided sense of humor kicks in - I imagine that when the family of the deceased sent the order in to the Monumental Bronze Company, they included a photo for the artist to create a likeness for the memorial. The artist's apprentice misunderstood the instructions and cast this phrase instead of the man's name! Everything about these monuments was customizable - even if you couldn't afford a portrait, you could choose specific text and decorative interchangeable panels. Another interesting thing to notice about this particular monument is the cracking at its base. This is fairly common with larger monuments as their bases begin to buckle and crack under the enormous weight.

Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ
Since zinc is actually a shiny, gleaming metal, like chrome, I wondered if the original zinc monuments were sold like this, with the chalky, dull coating appearing some months after being installed on a grave. “Left exposed to the elements the monuments rapidly form a tough and very durable skin of zinc carbonate that protects the underlying metal. The zinc carbonate is what gives the monuments their characteristic bluish gray color (ref.).” Although I would think a shiny futuristic monument would be rather cool, this, most assuredly, was at odds with Victorian sensibilities. Since the purpose of zinc monuments was to simply be an alternative to stone, it apparently was more aesthetically pleasing for them to resemble stone. Hence, the dull coating was actually created after the monument was assembled; it was delivered to its final resting place looking like it does today. 

Despite a nationwide distribution network (many companies across the U.S. were contracted to assemble the monuments, but the parts were actually poured and molded in Bridgeport), interest in the monuments died off after WWI. Part of the reason was a poor sales organization, which consisted only of catalog sales by part-time door-to-door salesmen. While the Monumental Bronze Company had a lovely catalog (view it  here as a pdf on the Association for Gravestone Studies' website), customers were expected to buy the monument sight unseen. The zinc monuments were not sold by the stone carving businesses where people would normally purchase their memorials. And not insignificantly, the U.S. government took over the Bridgeport plant for the manufacturing of munitions during the war (1914) - zinc is a key ingredient of brass (70% copper, 30% zinc), from which shell casings are made. The price of zinc tripled, probably contributing to zinc’s downfall as an economical alternative to memorial stonework.

Technology Transfer

During the war, interest in the zinc monuments died off and the company retooled to make other products. Zinc, you may not realize, plays a vital role in the process of galvanizing steel, which makes the steel rust-resistant. Though the Monumental Bronze Company couldn't predict its own demise, its processes would brighten everyone's future decades later. 

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
While the zinc monument industry eventually disappeared, the company's zinc molding and welding processes contributed greatly to future technological advance. The anti-corrosive properties of zinc were put to use in everything from galvanized steel ductwork for your home heating system to the galvanized steel used in automobile bodies. When a certain technology is made available to others so that it may be used in more diverse ways for the common good, its called technology transfer. Did you know that molded plastic ski boots and cordless electric drills had their origins in the U.S. Space Program (NASA)?

Monumental Bronze Company
If you ever want to learn more about gravestones, a likely place is Association for Gravestone Studies
Monumental Bronze Company Catalog
Cemetery Monuments – White Bronze – Zinc
Cemetery Monuments Made of Zinc, Carol A. Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator, MCI (Smithsonian Museum)
Zinc Sculpture in America