This talk is part of the Fountain Fundamentals Conference, July 10-11, 2013, Kansas City, MO.

Toward Better Treatment of Cast-Iron Fountains with Zinc Statues by Carol Grissom


The first statue to decorate a publicly financed fountain in the United States was William Rush’s wooden Water Nymph and Bittern, made for Philadelphia’s new water works in 1809.  Fountains remained relatively rare until after the Civil War, when the availability of inexpensive pig iron and growth in foundries brought cast-iron products of all kinds within reach of the middle class.  Elaborate ornamentation fashionable during the Victorian era could be easily duplicated on cast-iron basins, and fountain architecture could be efficiently assembled from sections.   At the same time expansion of the nation’s rail system enabled fountains to be transported throughout the country, and, once on site, components could be assembled by local workmen.  Both elaborate multi-tiered fountains with numerous statues and simpler fountains featuring single figures proliferated especially in the parks and civic squares of small towns as well as at large new institutions such as veterans’ homes.  They reflected pride in new public water systems and awakening interest in urban beautification made possible by the nation’s growing wealth.

At first statues on cast-iron fountains were also cast in iron.   Robert Wood & Co., for example, topped a fountain near its iron foundry in Philadelphia with a cast-iron copy of Canova’s Hebe by 1853.  Wood’s Hebe was molded using no fewer than 54 individually carved wooden patterns, indicating the labor required for making iron statues before the development of welding at the end of the nineteenth century.   French fountains with cast-iron statues continued as sources for American fountain designs throughout the nineteenth century, but zinc superseded cast iron for statuary by the 1870s, following its use for fountain statues in Germany.   Zinc castings could be readily joined with ordinary lead-tin solder, which simplified casting by allowing statues to be cast in many pieces and assembled; this permitted more fluid and elaborate designs to be made.   On account of its strength, cast iron continued to be used for most fountain architecture, and fountains were retailed through catalogues by major cast-iron producers, mainly the New York-based firms of Janes, Beebe & Co., J.W. Fiske, and the J.L. Mott Iron Works.   The zinc statues on cast-iron fountains, however, were generally obtained by the iron foundries from a common source, the zinc foundry of M. J. Seelig & Co. located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.   Exceptionally, a few fountains were made entirely of zinc by the Monumental Bronze Company and its affiliates in their unique white-bronze product.  These included at least 11 fountains topped by a statue of a teetotaling dentist, Dr.  Henry Cogswell, holding a glass of water in one hand and a temperance pledge in the other (none survive intact).

The purpose of this paper is to provide a brief historical survey of these often neglected fountains and their statues, to describe typical deterioration, and to suggest appropriate conservation treatments.   Elaborate fountains with multi-tiered basins were usually purchased for public decoration and are often found in their original locations but no longer in operation.  Drinking fountains rarely function in the original manner, and the separate basins intended for man, horse, and dog now more often serve as flower pots or trash receptacles.   Maintaining water tightness and surface coatings on cast-iron fountains requires continual effort and expense, not to mention control of algae and elimination of calcium deposits.  Smaller fountains are more likely to be intact, probably because their size makes them easier to maintain.

Removal of corrosion and repainting are the most significant tasks for cast-iron portions of fountains.  The frequent painting required for survival results in a significant buildup that eventually requires removal.  Cast iron can be sandblasted or dipped in lye for paint removal, but both methods will damage zinc.  Hence, zinc parts, which may include decorative spouts as well as statues, should be identified and cleaned by other means.  Corrosion is less of a problem for zinc, but coatings should be maintained.  Exceptions are the white-bronze fountains made by the Monumental Bronze Company, which were meant to remain unpainted in imitation of stone.

Zinc statues on fountains are often damaged, dismembered, or missing altogether.  Zinc is vulnerable to breakage, and statues are often damaged by vandals, use as jungle gyms on hot nights, and coin searches.  It should be emphasized, however, that zinc statues can be successfully repaired, especially when the main problems are separated seams and minor breakage.   Repairs with solder or by welding are likely to be most long lasting but can be difficult to effect.  Plastic repairs are possible with materials like epoxy.  On the other hand, filling statues with concrete invariably results in failure.   In my opinion, replication of statues should be considered only as a last resort.  Fiberglass-and-polyester-resin and aluminum copies often do not hold up well to fountain water.  Bronze copies are costly.

Many fountains suffer from ahistorical or poor choices of paint colors.  Contemporary nineteenth-century catalogues make clear that fountains (the fountain architecture together with statues) were meant to imitate stone or bronze and that white, off-white, or imitation-bronze paints are most appropriate.  Historical documents for individual fountains confirm such paints.  For example, an 1870 document for the 1858 Forsythe Park Fountain in Savannah states that it was originally painted to imitate Siena marble, that is, off white with yellow ochre-colored veining.  During the nineteenth century imitation-bronze paint was made with copper or brass flakes to achieve a dark brown bronze appearance.  Mica-based powders should be substituted for copper or copper alloy flakes, since they are more durable; a dark brown paint without flakes may also be an option.  In the second quarter of the twentieth century imitation-bronze paint on fountains began to be done in “verde antique.”  Unfortunately, by the mid-twentieth century many cast-iron fountains with zinc statues were painted black or very dark green, effectively camouflaging their handsome details.

 Speaker Bio:

Carol A.   Grissom has been Senior Objects Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution since 1984, specializing in treatment of metal, stone, and plaster sculpture.   An authority on zinc sculpture, she published Zinc Sculpture in America: 1850 to 1950 in 2009.   She received her Master’s degree in art conservation from Oberlin College, took advanced training at the national conservation institutes of Belgium and Italy and worked as a sculpture conservator at the Center for Archaeometry, Washington University, St.  Louis, and exhibitions conservator at the National Gallery of Art.

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