Feature Story

Some Molded Metallic Material

During our survey of the known cemeteries in Grand Isle County last summer, we kept seeing these powdery bluish monuments made of metal. You would knock on them with your knuckles and know it was metal by the hollow sound. One that sticks in the mind is that of Thomas Babcock (1818-1864), and his wife Saphronia Darrow (1819-1897), located on the back side of the Alburg Center Cemetery. A closer look at the inscription (see below) indicates that Babcock is actually only memorialized here with his wife’s remains, and is in fact buried in Andersonville, Georgia. Tom Ledoux’ Vermont in the Civil War web site confirms that Sergeant Babcock served with the 11th Vermont Infantry, was captured by the Confederates at Weldon Railroad in June 1864, and died as a result of diarrhea in November 1864, a prisoner in Andersonville.

We were reminded of this particular monument a couple weeks ago when we read the interview with Marilyn Welch-Fava about her Association’s Hillside-West Bridgewater Cemetery preservation project this fall. In response to the question, “Do you have a story about any relative in the cemetery that you can share with us?”, Marilyn related:

Great grandmother Carrie Spaulding married Herbert Johnson. They had two young children (one my grandmother Hazel Johnson Welch). Herbert was killed in a logging accident. She later married Orris Lewis, who adopted her children. They are all buried in Hillside-West Bridgewater with identical markers made of some molded metallic material (cast iron?) rather than granite or marble.

Marilyn provided this picture of Herbert Johnson, Carrie Spaulding, and Orris Lewis’ graves, all in a row, and all made of some molded metallic material.

Herbert Johnson, Carrie Spaulding, Orris Lewis

Out of the blue, or should we say, out of the powdery blue, Chris Book, our Vermont Old Cemetery Association treasurer, emailed us suggesting that Marilyn’s three metal monuments are most likely ZINC! Here is the fascinating detail provided by Chris:

White Bronze – Zinc
Zinc monuments appear to be made of a bluish gray stone. These monuments are actually made of molded metal! The material was called White Bronze to make it more appealing to customers, but it is actually pure zinc. 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. The monuments were erected in cemeteries across the entire United States (including Hawaii) and Canada.

Catalog Ordering
These monuments were ordered from a sales agent with a catalog, and were very inexpensive. The price range for these monuments was from about $6 for a single cast tablet, to as much as $5,000. The White Bronze markers copied the same shapes and styles as marble and granite monuments, but the stone monument dealers seldom sold the metal monuments. The back of the catalog featured an ad asking people to become sales agents with "No capital investment needed."

The catalogs listed the various shapes, symbols, sculptures, and panels that could be used. The customer would decide on the overall design he wanted, and then pick out the various symbols, and other decorative elements required. Price was based on the overall monument, not the number of images. Customers often ordered several images for each side. The individual pieces were then molded in zinc, and then simply bolted together with screws with decorated heads. Any text required was easily molded in the same fashion. When other family members died at a later date, old decorative panels could be easily removed and replaced with new castings with the updated information.

M.A. Richardson and C.J. Willard perfected the method of casting in 1873, but they did not have the capital that was required for full scale manufacturing, so they sold out to W.W. Evans. Evans also failed to get anything started, and sold the process to the Wilson, Parsons & Company of Bridgeport Connecticut in 1874.

Wax models were created by an artist, who worked at the plant. His models were then used to create plaster molds for creating the individual pieces. The company used a patented process for fusing the larger pieces together. Zinc was heated to temperatures way above its melting point, then poured into the joints between individual pieces. This caused the adjoining surfaces to melt together, welding them into a single unit, a much stronger process than soldering.

The zinc carbonate that gives the monuments their characteristic bluish gray color also creates a hard protective skin so that the castings are still extremely sharp and clear. However, zinc has two unfortunate characteristics. It is quite brittle and may break if hit by a falling branch, and over many years it's unsupported weight will creep and sag, causing some of the larger monuments to bow or crack. Another problem, but one that affects all cemetery monuments, is poor foundations. Crumbling bases and shifting soil has caused many monuments to lean.

The general rarity of these monuments is due to the fact that they were only produced for 40 years. This short production was caused by the fact that the metal monuments were never accepted by the public. Some cemeteries passed regulations that prohibited the use of metal markers, but it was mostly because people did not fully accept the claims that these monuments were superior to stone.

Monumental Bronze Company
In A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City Bridgeport, Connecticut Part II by Rev. Samuel Orcutt, Fairfield County Historical Society, Bridgeport, Conn, published 1886, we find the following passage:

The Monumental Bronze Company was organized and established in this city in the early part of the year 1874, located on corner of Barnum and Hallett streets, and has proved a successful enterprise. About the year 1868 Mr. M.A. Richardson was placed in charge of the Sherman cemetery grounds in Chautauqua county NY, and during several years of service there became impressed with the need of something more durable than stone for monumental use. His studies in the matter led him first to investigate the qualities of stone china as an article for such use, but after three journeys to Trenton NJ and other researches in the matter, turned his attention to the practicability of using galvanized iron for this purpose. In testing this material he made at Buffalo a small monument, placing stained glass tablets upon it with an inscription, but after three years he found the stained glass which he had been told would endure against the weather, peeled off, and hence was of no value in this kind of work. During this time his investigations, by a chance observation, were directed to the qualities of cast or molded zinc, and soon after he came to the conclusion that this was the article to meet his purposes and with this he galvanized his monument and took it to his home in Sherman and began to solicit capital, for the purpose of producing this kind of monument. He found Mr. O.J. Willard willing to become partner in the business, and they went to Patterson NJ, in May 1873, where they contracted with a firm to manufacture this kind of monument. Mr. Willard made a trip into the country and obtained about thirty orders, but at this point the work ended because the contractors failed to produce good castings. Another experiment was made in Brooklyn NJ to obtain the castings, but it failed. After several other failures, these persevering men built a shanty, put in a furnace, hired a molder, and at the end of three weeks, produced some very good castings for their purpose which astonished the other parties who failed, and had proclaimed that these castings could not be made. Some further efforts being made to interest capital having failed, the matter was given up as dead, and to be buried without a monument. Soon, however, a contract was made with Mr. Wm. Walter Evans of Patterson NJ, cashier of the great locomotive works, giving him the exclusive right to manufacture for the United States and to sell the same to Mr. Richardson's and Willard's agents at a stipulated price. He proceeded with the business about a year when he sold his interest to Wilson, Parsons and Company of Bridgeport, in the early part of the year 1874. When the enterprise began in Bridgeport, it is said one man could do all the work then to be done, and the full development of the present methods had not been obtained, but by various experiments, previous and afterward, the system was perfected. Soon after the company came here Mr. Daniel Schuyler was admitted as a partner, and the firm of Wilson, Schuyler and Company continued until the year 1877, when Mr. A.S. Parsons became a partner and the name was known as Schuyler, Parsons, Landon and Company and the business increased more rapidly until 1879, when it was formed into a stock company with a full paid cash capital of $300,000 under the title of the Monumental Bronze Company. Since then the business has rapidly increased, and the company are now able to produce anything in the monumental or statuary line, however great the size. The company have established manufactories in the following places: one at Chicago known as the American White Bronze Company; the Western White Bronze Company at Des Moines, Iowa; the St. Thomas White Bronze Monument Company at St. Thomas Can.; and the New Orleans White Bronze Works at New Orleans.

Monumental Bronze Company

The one great claim of the company in favor of their work, is durability far beyond any stone that can be obtained, and of this quality there is certainly great need as exhibited by the decaying stones in all the cemeteries and burying-places in the United States. The present officers of this company are: President A.S. Parsons, formerly contractor in the Wheeler and Wilson Sewing Machine Company, Vice President E.N. Sperry of New Haven, Treasurer W.O. Corning from New York, Secretary R.E. Parsons from Norwich, Ct. (Author's note: Remember that the author Orcutt is writing in his present 1886 about an existing company).

October 1882 Catalogue of the Monumental Bronze Company

Click here to open the fascinating October 1882 Catalogue of the Monumental Bronze Company. On page 2, scientists extoll the virtues of the White Bronze monuments including Professor S. P. Duffield at the Michigan State Unversity: Judging from a chemical and scientific standpoint, these monuments will last thousands of years. Pages 6 and 7 present a selection of bas relief emblems such as three chain links, an anchor, and a square and compass "for ornamenting the appropriate spaces on the monument selected." At page 17, we are presented with the No. 1 Double Front, $34 with cross, $30 without. The catalog relates: By "Double Front" we mean that our "Slab" styles are the same on Front and Back, thus giving double space for inscriptions and emblems. This author sees his 15 foot high monument on page 122, the Civil War uniform replaced by my Coast Guard Whites and a life vest in my hands. Page 127 exhorts the sales agents: The business is INEXHAUSTIBLE, and will LIVE as long as people die, and increase with the growth in population and wealth.

Barry Trutor, VOCA Member