Who Made All Those Monuments, Anyway?
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock lately, you may have heard about some monuments coming down, and a lot of discussion about hundreds more, all over the country that perhaps may come down.
Without debating any questions about whether any Confederate or other monuments could or should come down, or about the politics of any monument anywhere in a public arena, another question might arise: where the heck did all these monuments come from, anyway?
Well, monuments and statues in stone, marble, granite, and more have been made for thousands of years. Confederate monuments really only began to be made in large numbers around the turn of the twentieth century. If you have watched recent coverage of the controversy over Confederate monuments, you may have picked up that the biggest period of activity for erecting them was during the 1910’s and 1920’s.
And even back then, a monument could draw real controversy…
Back in 1898 Elberton, Georgia erected a granite statue to honor the local men who’d fought for the Confederacy. Two years later, the monument was taken down. Now, it’s worth noting the statue was taken down not because of any noted disagreement with the subject matter from the Elberton, GA citizens. Not, the statue was removed in the dead of night
mostly because it was just considered ugly. One citizen said the statue had earned the nicknamed ‘Dutchy’ because it looked like “a cross between a Pennsylvania Dutchman and a hippopotamus.”
Now, once ‘Dutchy” was retired, what were the people of Elberton to do? They didn’t waste much time before they ordered a brand new statue, and this time in white bronze.
White bronze? It was something new, something that was being pitched by one company as a material that would last forever. And the sales pitch was good… and the white bronze? Very good. And the fact is that there wouldn’t be nearly as many statues as there are today without white bronze as a construction material—and without the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
You need look no farther for proof than “Dutchy’s” replacement, still standing today at Confederate Memorial Park in Lee County.
Dutchy’s replacement, manufactured by Monumental Bronze Co. around 1900 Michael Rivera/CC BY-SA 4.0
First of all, though, you should first know that white bronze isn’t white. It’s more of a gray—one that turns bluish over time.
And one more tiny detail: white bronze isn’t bronze, either, it’s actually zinc. Once the statue is molded, it was sandblasted to lend a texture like
Once the statue is molded, it was sandblasted to lend a texture like a stone. Monumental Bronze Co. made this their signature material for statues, grave memorials, and monuments. They described their statues and memorials as “beautiful in appearance, and unequaled for durability,”
Monumental Bronze Co. didn’t limit themselves to Confederate memorials either; they were equal opportunity suppliers who would gladly construct a Union monument, or any of an array of other potential lasting tributes, including: urn-topped pillars, a statue of St. Joseph, or even some whimsical constructions like elephants.
You could definitely get your monument custom made. But Monumental Bronze also had a mix-and- match program in which various designs of Civil War statues had interchangeable parts!
Ah, but the question of price. And this is where the company really won out. For about $450.00 you could get a life size soldier monument cast in white bronze, with perhaps your choice of head or weapon. That’s about $12,000.00 in today’s dollars—really quite reasonable when you consider that usually a large group was contributing to the passed hat.
So a solid price and the remaining appeal, even today, of the lasting quality of the casting material. Sure, it may not have been either actually white in color, or actually bronze, but it turns out that zinc protects itself from weathering– simply by being exposed to air. As one flier summarized: “White bronze is endorsed by scientists. Stone is not.”
“The most durable material of which monuments or statuary are made,” was a promise made, and, considering the number of monuments still standing today, was a promise kept. The Monumental Bronze Co. expanded its operations to Detroit, Chicago, Ontario, and Louisiana and beyond. By 1921, the company’s hometown newspaper, the Bridgeport
Telegram, reported that the company was doing “enormous business– especially in the South and West.” Their soldier statues eventually appeared in 31 states.
But nothing can last forever, and when World War I started, the United States government claimed the Monumental Bronze Company’s zinc foundries in order to use the material for munitions. It’s hard to say what might have happened had the war not occurred.
What is for certain is that the monuments still standing in towns and cities across America still have inscriptions that remain deep and legible, with every word… name… date… as clear… as the day it was cast,” write two genealogists from Pennsylvania.
The hand of time may not take away the monuments from The Monumental Bronze Company. But as the news of late shows, the crumbling and weathering of the ages isn’t the only way to take down a statue or
But don’t blame the Monumental Bronze Company for that. Their material and craftsmanship was fine—in retrospect, very fine.
The problem for many people today is the message written on the material.
Innovative materials can make all the difference. But don’t forget the design inspiration to make sure those materials result in something that will be appreciated for the ages.
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