White Bronze Monuments

Have you ever noticed a bluish-gray cemetery monument? You think “It’s probably granite” but as you get closer, you know it is something else. The date is most likely prior to 1915 but the inscription looks as new as it did when the monument was set in place. The details are fresh and crisp. How can this be? It is over 100 years old! Tap on it – it sounds hollow and appears to be made of metal.

What you have found is a monument called white bronze which is composed of 99% zinc. They were made by the Monumental Bronze Company, Bridgeport, Ct., starting about 1879. They were called white bronze because people were familiar with bronze and the manufacturer thought the monuments would be more accepted if people thought they were made from bronze rather than zinc. Obviously, there was some deceptive advertising going on but their ruse worked for soon they had subsidiaries in Chicago, Des Moines, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and St. Thomas, Canada.

Contributed photo

It is difficult to find much information on this company, but we learned that salesmen sold the products from a catalog or took customers to cemeteries to show them examples. The grave markers came in different sizes ranging from a few inches to over 25 feet tall. Their shapes resembled a tablet, a four-sided monument, obelisk, or statue.

The customer would first select a base and monument style and then add panels attached with decorative screws. The emblems/decorations on the panels were almost limitless – flowers, religious or fraternal symbols, Victorian designs, etc. Various epitaphs or inscriptions could be chosen to make each grave marker unique. As people died, new panels could be made to reflect their deaths with names and dates to replace the existing panel.

Many Civil War soldier statues seen across both the north and the south in veteran cemeteries and parks were made of white bronze. The Monumental Bronze Company statues can be found in over thirty states. The “Silent Sentinel,” or American soldier figure was a mustached soldier wearing a great coat standing at parade rest with both hands on the barrel of his rifle. They can look the same for both the north and south but sometimes there were variations. The northern soldier has a long coat, the southern soldier a shorter coat and different hat.

When the company received a customer’s order they first created a wax mold, then a plaster cast which was used to make a sand mold in which the zinc was cast. The final process was sandblasting and then application of a “special formula” to give it the bluish-gray finish. The castings were done in Bridgeport, Ct., and the finishing and assembly at its subsidiaries. Larger monuments were made in sections then fused together using molten zinc. Small, molten zinc ingots were pressed into the seams to hold them together.

The Monumental Bronze Company was the largest if not the only company to make zinc grave makers. The monuments were most popular from about 1880-1900 when marble and granite stones were considered too expensive. The white bronze monuments offered an alternative to traditional gravestones, however some looked down on them, saying they were cheap imitations of granite. Some cemeteries even banned them.

In 1914 when World War I began, the government took over the company’s foundry to support the war effort. After the war, prevailing thought again favored natural stone for gravestones and the company stopped producing monuments. Records show that 1914 was their final year of monument production but we have seen monuments dated 1915, 1927 and 1934. It is documented that the company continued to make the panels and inscription plates for them until 1939 when they went out of business – but we have seen one dated 1941.

Although the company’s claim that their monuments were superior to stone may have been exaggerated, their products have stood the test of time. The castings have endured weathering, pollution and acid rain while their stone counterparts have not fared as well. Zinc is a natural biocide preventing biological growth of moss, lichen and algae so they can still be easily read while their counterparts are not.

Unfortunately, the monuments are not completely indestructible. They can become brittle so if struck by a tree or vehicle, can crack or shatter. Tall statues are subject to “creeping” or bowing out at the bottom from weight and pressure. Time has also taken a toll on the foundations – as they deteriorate the monuments can start to lean. In some cases, cracks or seam separation develops, but most remain remarkably preserved.

We are always excited to see these monuments in cemeteries. Their different shapes, sizes, and designs seem unlimited and their durability is amazing. There once was a Monumental Bronze Company dealer that lived in Guilford in Chenango County, so that area seems to have more monuments than typically found elsewhere. Guilford, Afton, Mt. Upton and South New Berlin are good places to stop if you want to see any of these exceptional gravestones. If you are lucky, you may see one that has the company name, Monumental Bronze Company – Bridgeport, Ct., cast on the base.

March 8, 2023