Zinc Sculpture

What is zinc sculpture and why is it important?
Metallic zinc was not produced in the west until the 18th century, and it was not until the 1850s that zinc sculpture was made in the United States. From then on, however, it was popular until the end of the century. Thereafter production of zinc sculpture gradually diminished before dying out altogether in the 1950s, and it is not well-known today. The metal is often mis-identified, in part because it was mainly an inexpensive vehicle for paint that imitated more costly materials. Few New Yorkers, for example, know that a gilded statue of Puck on the Puck Magazine Building is made of zinc (Fig. 1). If the metal can be seen, however, it can be easily identified by its gray color and white corrosion products, coupled with its being non- magnetic (which distinguishes it from cast iron, which is magnetic).

Zinc sculptures are important because they reflect cultural history during the 19th century throughout the United States, especially in smaller towns. While urban centers had sources of revenue enabling erection of expensive bronze monuments, small communities throughout the country could afford zinc statues purchased from trade catalogues and shipped by railroad. Some of the most common types are:

  • Civil War monuments topped by a soldier, memorializing the contributions of ordinary soldiers in local regiments (Fig. 2). Typically found on commons in small New England towns or on courthouse grounds in other parts of the country, they are usually customized to reflect specific battles fought and may even incorporate the local regiment's brass buttons on the soldier's uniform

  • statues of Justice on the roofs of county courthouses, whose construction exploded as the country developed after the Civil War (Fig. 3). Bearing a two-pan balance and sword, the figure symbolizes the court's role in weighing evidence and enforcement of laws. Often these statues are the only public sculptures in rural counties

  • statues atop cast iron fountains that inexpensively beautified parks as communities became more established (Fig. 4). In more than one instance, these incorporated drinking fountains to support goals of the temperance advocates who donated them

  • statues of American Indians, copied directly from earlier wooden figures and first used as signs of tobacconists' shops. Even more popular for memorializing community legends as the frontier disappeared, the same statue of an Indian Chief was purchased by more than 20 communities to depict as many historic personages

  • animal statues that include a Baby Elephant, commemorating the first elephant born into captivity at the Barnum and Bailey circus; Morley's Dog, becoming the mascot of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after surviving the disastrous 1889 flood; and Pa Pa's Boy, topping the tombstone of a treasured pet (Fig. 5)

How was zinc sculpture made?
Zinc sculpture was made first by casting the metal in molds and later on by stamping zinc sheet in forms. Both types were easier (and therefore cheaper) to make than bronze or iron statuary because small pieces could be quickly fabricated and joined to make a large statue. Since most were painted to imitate either stone or bronze statues, seams crisscrossing the statues did not matter. A uniquely American type, known as white bronze, was made in a somewhat different manner by the Monumental Bronze Company and its affiliates. Seams were carefully located so that they were unobtrusive, and surfaces were sandblasted so that the granular appearance of stone was imitated without painting (Fig. 5).

How does zinc sculpture deteriorate?
Now that most zinc sculptures are more than 100 years old, they are often in need of repair. Since the cast metal is brittle, the most common problem is breakage (Fig. 6). The larger cast zinc monuments often suffer from metal "creep," resulting in bulges, leaning, and other distortion (Fig. 2). Stamped sheet-zinc statues are less prone to breakage but their thinner metal is easily dented. Placement high on buildings also makes architectural sheet-zinc statues objects of target practice and vulnerable to losing parts, such as the balance and sword missing from a statue of Justice (Fig. 3). Loss of surface coatings can result in disfigured statues that no longer reflect their original appearances. Poor choice of treatment in the past may also cause damage. For example, large monuments filled with concrete in an attempt to support distressed areas invariably results in disastrous cracking of the zinc, and the concrete cannot be easily removed (Fig. 7).

What is the scope of the project at MCI?
Several hundred zinc statues have been examined throughout the United States for this technical study, and a catalog of more than 700 works has been assembled from numerous resources, including the Smithsonian's Inventory of American Art and other sources. This database is being used for the first book on zinc sculpture in America, aimed particularly at improving conservation treatments. For example, descriptions of paint coatings appropriate for particular types of sculpture can be used to select modern coatings when no evidence of the original survives. Knowledge that white bronze monuments were not meant to be painted, on the other hand, may put a stop to the occasional application of paint, which detracts from the material's intended stone-like appearance. Finally, if the practice of filling large zinc monuments with concrete is halted, this alone will bring an enormous savings to the national heritage.

Further reading
Grissom, Carol A. "The conservation of outdoor zinc sculptures." In Ancient and Historic Metals, edited by David A. Scott, Jerry Podany, and Brian B. Considine, pp. 279-304. The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 1994.

1. Puck, Henry Baerer, 1885, gilded cast zinc, Puck Magazine Building, New York City
2. Civil War Memorial, with the statue leaning backwards, 1885, Patchogue, New York
3. Justice, missing her scales and sword, 1894, stamped zinc, Warren County Courthouse, Lebanon, Ohio
4. Boy and Sword Fountain, cast zinc statue on cast iron fountain, Arts & Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution
5. Pa Pa's Boy, 1913, white bronze, near Geneva, New York
6. Broken statues (Spring, Praying Angel, Diana, and Deer) before treatment at the Koester House, Marysville, Kansas
7. Soldiers Monument, detail of cracking from concrete inside, 1883, white bronze, Lowville, New York