Saving Firemen Made of Zinc

Carol A. Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator, MCI

Beginning in the 19th century, statues of firemen were placed in municipal burial plots memorializing those who died in the line of duty. At first they were carved in marble, such as Robert E. Launitz's New York Firemen's Monument (Fig. 1). Later on a few were cast in bronze, while a less expensive option ecame available towards the end of the century - statues of firemen made of zinc. Fourteen have been identified so far, including several models sold in multiple copies and two that may have been single castings. The outpouring of admiration for fireman after the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City has inspired a renewed appreciation of these zinc statues, and many are being spruced up. A goal here is to inform such treatments.

One of the earliest Fireman made of zinc was erected in a St. Paul (MN) cemetery in 1891 after a contest held by the city (Safer). Seven additional zinc replicas have been located, indicating that it was the most popular statue of its type (Fig. 3). Modeled by Caspar Buberl (1834-1899) and sold by J.W. Fiske, the fireman holds a child wearing a nightdress in his left arm. Thus, it recalls the earlier marble statue on the New York Firemen's Monument, as well as many representations of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Other statues also have the child in the fireman's left arm and a lantern in his right hand, including a zinc Fireman modeled by the Italian-born Giuseppe Moretti (1859-1935) and sold at least 4 times by the J.L. Mott Iron Works (Fig. 5). This statue was likely a losing entrant in the St. Paul contest, its features in common with the winning statue probably reflecting specifications dictated by the contest rather than a result of copying. Somewhat atypically, these two models of firemen were also cast in bronze, e.g., a replica of Fiske's statue erected atop a handsome granite pedestal decorated with a fire hose, ladder, and pike poles in Hoboken, New Jersey (Fig. 2). No bronze copies of Moretti's statue are known, but a bronze version is listed in Mott's 1911 catalogue entitled Statuary in metal.

Even as firefighting became a paid profession, statues of firemen continued to be placed atop monuments that memorialized volunteer companies, which carried on as social clubs. A monument in Union City (NJ), for instance, was erected in 1921 for a volunteer company active from 1858 to 1913 (Fig. 4). The J.W. Fiske Iron Works apparently updated Buberl's 30-year old model by replacing the "leather" boots worn inside the trousers with "rubber" boots worn outside (rubber boots had come into use around the turn of the century). Fire hats and belt buckles were also customized by casting in the fire company's number, initials, or name. "Trenton V.F.D," for example, identifies the Trenton Volunteer Fire Department on the helmet of a statue in New Jersey (Fig. 8). Such changes were easy to effect since the statues were cast in many pieces that were soldered together, and usually only a few sections had to be altered.

Still less expensive than cast-zinc statues of firemen were those that were stamped in sheet metal. A sheet-metal Fireman (Fig. 6), also related to Buberl's statue for Fiske, was available in three variants from W.H. Mullins, an architectural metalwork company located in Salem, Ohio (sheet-metal statues can be readily distinguished from cast statues even at a distance because the thin, flexible metal is almost always dented). The statue was modeled by the Swiss-born John Segesman (1865-1953), who joined Mullins only in 1896, so that the statue could not have been entered in the St. Paul contest in 1891. Rather, Segesman almost certainly copied Buberl's statue, just as many other sheet-metal statues were copies of statues that had been cast, especially statues of Civil War soldiers. The sheet-metal Fireman may have been modeled from an illustration of Buberl's statue, which could explain a change in the child's hand (it points outwards instead of clutching the fireman's chest) since the location of the hand might not have been evident in a two-dimensional illustration. Only sheet-copper copies of Mullins' fireman have been located to date, but it was normal practice for the company to stamp sheet-zinc statues using the same dies. An example of the version that most closely follows the fireman-and-child statue sold by Fiske is found on the Texas State Capitol grounds: Fireman, Save My Child (1896) is colored a rich dark brown to look like bronze and bears inscriptions for "J. SEGESMAN/ SCULPTOR" and "W.H. Mullins." A second version of the statue has the fireman holding the lantern upraised in his right hand instead of at his side (Fig. 6). The third version shows the same figure without the child and holding a speaking trumpet aloft. This format follows a famous wooden statue of Harry Howard (c. 1860), the Chief Engineer of the New York Volunteer Fire Department. A sheet-copper example of the statue was dedicated in Meadville (PA) in 1915.

Two other statues follow a different style of fireman holding a fire hose, which also had many precedents in stone. The Henry C. Brookin Memorial (1891) in Little Rock (AK) is almost certainly a one-off creation (Fig. 7). Another statue was placed atop the Fireman's Memorial Fountain in Chattanooga (TN) in 1888 (it was replaced with an aluminum replica in 1961, but an historic photograph indicates that the copy generally matches the original). The fountain was obtained from the J.L. Mott Iron Works, but the statue has not been found in any of Mott's widespread trade catalogues, in which zinc statues are usually featured atop cast-iron fountain structures.

In fact, more than half of the known statues of firemen made of zinc were sold tegether with cast-iron drinking fountains by J.W. Fiske and the J.L. Mott Iron Works (Fig. 5). It was a natural combination given the role of water in fighting fires, yet in at least one case the statue seems to have been an afterthought. In Orangeburg (NC) the local Businessman's League wanted to erect a fountain in 1904 and, finding that they had an extra $300, decided to purchase a fireman statue to commemorate the local company.

Statues of firemen made of zinc are often in good condition, perhaps only with cracks where solder seams have begun to come apart. Annual cleaning and painting is a tradition for many local fire companies. Most statues were originally painted with copper-flake paints to imitate bronze. Catalogues listed them with one price for "painted one coat" (probably a primer) or for about 10% more, "bronzed." In 2002, the Fireman in Trenton (NJ) was coated with an attractive custom-made "bronze" paint (Fig. 8). Off-the-shelf bronze paints are often too glossy or plastic looking. Several statues have been painted with natural colors, although such treatments were probably not done when the statues were first installed (Figs. 6, 7). The fountain basins on which firemen stand are often in deplorable condition, with thick layers of corrosion and missing parts reflecting the high maintenance demands of iron. Prior to repainting, corroded cast-iron sections may be sand blasted or stripped with highly alkaline chemicals, but these methods should never be used to remove paint from zinc statues. Instead, conventional paint strippers should be employed. Lanterns are often lost because they are attractive objects for vandals. An apparently original example made of a mixture of cast and sheet zinc held by the Fireman in Trenton is exhibited on important occasions but otherwise detached for safe keeping.

References
Grissom, Carol A. and Harvey, Ronald S. The conservation of American war memorials made of zinc. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 41 (2003) 21-38

Safer, Chef. Wild iron life. Saturday Evening Post. May 25, 1929, 189

For further information about many statues, log onto http://www.siris.si.edu (Art Inventories)