American Gravestone Evolution - Part 2

Click Here for part 1

Monuments of North America during the 1800's

In a previous article, I highlighted the influences from Europe, the colonial religious attitudes and carvable stones availability, which all helped to create the earliest carved gravestones in America, from the middle of the 1600’s to the early 1800’s. In this second installment of a series, I will be highlighting the evolution of American memorials, from 1800 to the early 1900’s.

Four interrelated factors converged to trigger major changes in the American burial customs and memorialization traditions, beginning around 1800. Quickly increasing population in cities, overcrowding in existing burial grounds, the refusal of churches to allow non -members burial rights and the industrial revolution all contributed to cause epic changes in burial locations and customs. I will attempt to overview each of these interrelated factors in a concise and readable fashion.

I must admit this is a large and complex topic, which I will attempt to outline in the following article.

I will begin by briefly reviewing the colonial era in order to create a historical context for new readers or a review for those who may have read the previous first installment.

The earliest American grave markers tended to be simple, unassuming, and carved from locally available materials. These early markers were commonly composed from sandstone, slate, limestone, soapstone, or what ever was locally available and soft enough to quarry, cut and carve into tombstones.

This first generation of stones were selected for there workability and were often able to be split to a rough thickness like a piece of wood, due to prominent bedding planes. Some of these early colonial gravestones have stood the test of time, and are in near pristine condition today, such as the slate stones found in Boston’s oldest burying grounds, The Kings Chapel and the Granary, dating back to the late 1680s. Other early gravestones have not stood the test of time, and have weathered away, such as many Connecticut River Valley sandstone markers.

Most of the colonial hand carved, tablet style gravestones, were situated amidst historic churchyards, or in town common burying grounds.

As colonial America grew in size and population it evolved quickly, and with it so did the need for larger planned burial places. Simultaneously, religious attitudes were

influencing and changing  Americans values, and the industrial revolution was advancing technologies at an accelerated pace.

In the period around the early 1800’s, many American cities began expanding at an alarming rate with ever increasing populations.

The value of real estate skyrocketed in these cities. Existing church burial yards, and town green burial places were already becoming overcrowded and were lacking care and maintenance, many had already become run down and dilapidated. Although the relationship between disease, germs, and sanitary conditions was not exactly understood, it was long feared that there was some kind of correlation.

Some cities in the Northeastern states, reacted to these concerns by creating new planned cemeteries on the outskirts of cities or in neighboring towns where populations were low and plenty of open space was still available. Inner city graveyards were beginning to be banned, and existing urban graveyards were candidates for relocation into the newly formed rural cemeteries. The real estate developers wanted to reclaim this valuable land for new and more profitable construction projects.

The first chartered burial ground in the United States was The Grove Street Cemetery, which was incorporated by the State of Connecticut 1797, as The New Haven Burying Ground. It was founded on the outskirts of the city, following severe yellow fever epidemics in 1794 and 1795. Considered to be the first planned cemetery in America, it contained family plots, which enabled advance death planning and preneed lots sales. It was later renamed Grove Street Cemetery. Cemetery, from the Greek word for resting place, quickly came into widespread use in America for nearly all, new burial places.

During the colonial era the symbolism found on many gravestones was not endorsed by the church, but not forbidden either. In fact, the early deaths heads, grim reaper and his scythe, and the hourglass images on headstones, may have been the only place this type of folk art was allowed. They warned that life was short and that God may choose your end next, so don’t sin and be fearful.

Although the exact time line was very blurred depending on the exact region, and distance from cities, by the middle of 1700s the deaths heads had nearly all evolved to the soul effigy, symbolizing ones soul flying off to heaven, a much less morbid attitude reflected by what was happening in society and in the church.

The winged cherubs, or soul effigy lingered for many decades until the classical Victorian imagery took hold, which was the urn and willow. The urn, a Greek revival image symbolized the soul, The urn was used by Greeks to keep the ashes of the cremated, the willow, like a weeping willow, symbolized sadness or mourning. It was a symbol of the Underworld goddesses, mostly notably Persephone, and Orpheus, who went to the Underworld, and brought along a willow branch. 

Many of the new rural cemeteries were non- sectarian and nondenominational, they were more concerned with the depth of your pocket book for preneed lot sales.

As status in society was based on ones display of wealth, some things never change, the larger more visible family plots, such as those near entrances and roadways, were sold at a higher price per grave.

The industrial revolution was creating advances in technology that made stone quarrying and stone cutting faster, and less costly. First with steam power, later followed by electricity, these advances, allowed for speedy and less laborious sawing and machine finishing of large blocks of stone into memorials.

The new manufacturing innovation, combined with the planned family lot sales of rural cemeteries made larger, multi piece monuments become less expensive, more desirable, and increasingly common.

As a rule I often simplify that in every century of American history, memorials held a primary stone type and monumental style;

1700s= local stones, carved into gravestones,

1800s= marble, statuary, multi piece monuments, brownstone obelisks & pillars

1900s= granite & marble, evolving to all granite and with 2 piece monuments,

Although this is a good guideline to follow, the exact time lines in the evolution of monumental styles and stone types varied greatly regionally, throughout, counties, states and towns. The farther a location was from the train tracks, the slower was the transition to newer and varying stone sources.

The corollary was also true, the closer to a preexisting source of local stone supply, the later and slower the transition to marble and granite often became. In some situations the transition was resisted or never completely took place.

Although the names to describe varying types of memorials are often interchanged, to avoid any confusion, the earliest type of a monolithic, single piece headstone is ideally referred to as a gravestone, or as it was commonly known in the more western regions, as a tombstone. The larger, multi piece headstones, which became very common in the middle to late 1800s, became to be known as monuments, specifically cemetery monuments.

The ability to purchase gravesites in advance, allowed for larger planned monuments to be erected on family plots, sometimes in advance of any burials, hence the term pre-need monument.

Although some limited quantities of marble were imported from Italy for wealthy patrons in the 1700s, it was very slow to transport from Europe, making it prohibitively expensive to the general public.

Marble was first quarried in America, in Dorset, Vermont in 1785.

The first technical advances took place in 1805 with the invention of "gang saw" and the "channelling machine", enabling larger blocks to be mined and worked. A few new marble quarries appeared at this time along the marble vein that runs from the North to the South of Vermont, most notably in Rutland, Sutherland Falls (Proctor), Florence, Brandon, and Middlebury. Vermont was soon to be booming with stone cutting of not just marble, but also granite and slate.

Stone is very heavy, marble weighs over 150 pounds per cubic foot, granite is heavier, about 180 pounds per cubic foot, although all stones vary depending on the exact chemical makeup.  This high density made it difficult and costly to move and ship great distances. That was until the advent and connection of railways in Northeast America. As the shipping and quarrying costs dropped, marble and granite sales increased.

During the 1800s, marble was touted as being a permanent building metrial which would never weather, and it would stand the test of time, or so the manufactures claimed. Modern industrial pollution was not understood or factored in this equation, and today acid deposition known as acid rain, has taken its toll on the historic marble gravestones and structures throughout New England, Washington DC, as well as the rest of the world, by eroding the stone and washing away carved elements and inscriptions.

The earliest use of granite in New England was The King's Chapel, which was constructed in 1754 of granite boulders dug up in Quincy, split and hammered, and transported to Boston. In the early 1800s, a stonecutter in Danvers by the name of

Tarbox, invented a new way to split stones by drilling regular holes and then driving small wedges into them until the rock split cleanly. Once this technique was employed, the price of granite dropped and its use in construction increased quickly.

Granite and marble were both being actively quarried throughout the 1800s, and competing for market share. Granite is much harder then marble, being igneous and about 70% silicates, made up of mostly mica, quartz and feldspar. Granite however, was very difficult to cut and finish, due to its hardness and uneven grain.

In fact its better to describe granite being slowly chipped away, rather then being carved. This was one of the main reasons it took so much longer to become common as a headstone material.  By the latter part of 1800s, granite usage greatly increased on larger simple headstones and obelisks with less detailed carving. Combining types and colors of stone into one polychromatic monument also became very common in some regions, often employing granite or even a sandstone base, with a finely carved marble headstone above.

Granite was also being quarried in Vermont, but the weight and lack of viable transportation, stagnated the movement of the heavy stone until rail lines connected many regions with the quarries. By 1848 white river junction and the nearby Bethal with a quarry was connected.  The Montpelier and White River Railroad opened in 1876 connecting to Barre, but it was not until 1888 that the quarries were finally connected to a high quality vast source of granite that is still highly active today.

Westerly, Rhode Island was another source for very fine -grained high quality granite. Starting in 1846 stone was being quarried, and within 30 years 1000s were being employed, quarrying, cutting and finishing the granite into building blocks, sculpture and monuments greatly coveted for its even texture and workability.

Another type of stone that was directly competing with the increasing marble and granite trade, was also one of the earliest quarried material in the new world, sandstone. Portland, CT was historically known as East Middletown, which became the location of many brownstone quarries beginning in 1690, when, James Stanclift was contracted by the town of Middletown to build stonework, in exchange for a deed of land. Commercial quarrying started in 1783 when the Brainerd Quarry Company began operations.  Brownstone is a type of sandstone that tends to be red or brown in color, and it is formed when fresh water lake and riverbeds dry out, and in a geologic time frame turn into stone. Due to its geographic location, Portland is situated along a very large vein of brownstone, therefore many quarries flourished throughout the 1800s, and well into the 20th century. Being located right alongside the Connecticut River, and centrally located in Connecticut and New England, the

easily carvable brownstone was shipped by river and rail far and wide.

Therefore in the Middletown area the transition to marble was much slower and only partial. Eventually the remaining brownstone quarries were flooded by the hurricane of 1938, and manufacturing ceased. Concrete had long surpassed brownstone in building construction and granite was winning out for memorial applications by then due to its much greater durability, so the quarries remained shuttered, until recently one was reopened.

Before marble began to be commercially quarried in America, wealthy patrons imported it from Europe for use in memorials and ornamental stone works.

The purest form of marble, such as the coveted Carrera Marble imported from Italy, is made up of nearly pure calcium carbonate, it is solid white in color, with no significant veining or streaks. Marble is formed from sea shells and organic matter, which first become limestone generations after the salt water recedes, followed by  heat and pressure  which can crystallize the stone.

Coloration other then pure white, was considered an impurity, caused by a mix of other minerals, making it less desirable aesthetically. Carved details in memorials and statues were much easier to hand- carve in the even grained, pure white marble, as opposed to the marble with veining and uneven grain.

Benjamin Chew Tilghman was a soldier and inventor who was born in 1821, and became a Colonel and commander during the Civil War.

During the war Tilghman had seen the effects of wind-blown sand on windows in the desert, when he realized he could intentionally sandblast metal objects to remove rust.

In 1870, he invented the sandblasting process and filed a patent, detailing the applications for his technique, such as sharpening files, engraving bottles, and cleaning boilers.

In 1871, at the 40th Exhibition of the American Institute of the City of New York, he was awarded the institute's Great Medal of Honor for his invention.

By 1891, his sandblasting technique was being employed in West Rutland, Vermont marble manufacturing, to inscribe letters in stone, a seminal point in monument production, but one that would not become common place for many years to follow.

Boston was the colonial epicenter of the gravestone carving in America for a few reasons. It was a major seaport centrally located in New England, it had a large population, and it had a plentiful source for high quality slate to carve into intricate headstones. It also led the way in the rural cemetery movement by establishing Mt Auburn Cemetery in 1831, just across the Charles River in Cambridge, MA.

Although Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, CT had proceeded it by over 3 decades, Grove Street was in many ways a fusion between the historic burying ground and its soon to be invented park style rural cemetery.  In the interim, the first landscaped cemetery was opened in 1804, as the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Mt Auburn was really more of a planned park when it first opened its gates.

There were no planned city parks in that era, so it really was helping to set the stage for two separate interrelated American movements, the planned urban park in or on the edge of the city, and the planned rural cemetery on the outskirts of the city or in an adjacent metropolitan area. A few decades later, nearly every major city in America had at least one large park and a planned rural cemetery, which mimicked the idealized countryside.

Winding roads were graced with intricate plantings, with rare species of flora incorporated into the landscaping. Onsite greenhouses were built to cultivate plants and flowers. Classical architecture included elements from all the growing and trendy revival movements, Greek Colonnades, Egyptian Obelisks, and Roman Arches were bravely intertwined in large ornate Entrance Gateways. Ornate chapels were constructed in highly visible locations to conduct funeral services for the recently departed. Man made ponds and water features and were adorned with classical sculptures and fountains.

Due to the fact that most cities in America grew very quickly, little planning for open spaces had occurred in advance. The paved over cities had few areas of grass remaining, and the fast pace lifestyle left little time for reflection. Unban folks began flocking to visit these new and inspiring rural cemeteries in large and ever increasing numbers. It became fashionable to take a carriage ride through the winding roads, to picnic on the grounds and to visit the rural cemetery of yesteryear, as a person in New York City today, would visit Central Park.

Some cemeteries took advantage of the publics interest and began to change an admission fee to visit. Others had trolley lines built to there entrance gates, and offered carriage rides through the cemetery. The rural cemetery thrived as the city cemetery died out both figuratively and literally. Some inner city cemeteries were relocated, as they like to say, to a more idyllic location for the departed. In some instances the gravestones and there related human remains were carefully and accurately moved and reinterred, in other cases a great deal of what was underground was left behind, only to be discovered later as nearby buildings were demolished and enlarged.

In Hartford, CT at the Ancient Burial Ground this was also the case. Over 6000 souls were safely laid to rest in the 1600- mid 1800s. Now less then 500 gravestones remain. It was reported that around the year1900, when basements were being excavated and enlarged on the adjacent Lewis Street, which abuts the back of the cemetery, many coffins with human remains were unearthed. It is unclear and not reported how this was resolved, this was however, far from an isolated incident.

At the start of the 1800s most gravestones were structurally fairly thin tablet-stones. In areas where marble was being installed the most common type of stone was created from marble slab stock, that was about 2 inches in thickness. Exact dimensions varied greatly, but an average sized gravestone was a few feet tall above ground and was set a couple of feet into the ground. Children would get smaller stones. Epitaphs, the wise saying and religious verse were common beneath the information about the departed. As styles evolved, by the middle and late 1800s, the earlier rounded top stones, became very simple with squared edges, turning them into simple rectangular stones slab gravestones.


Civil war era

There were many varying types, sizes and styles of stones being installed side by side in the same time frame. The general trend was for single piece slab tablet stones to evolve into multi piece, stacked marble monuments.  The civil war was a seminal point for this evolution. During the war very little stone- work was performed.

After the wars end there was a huge need to mark the graves of fallen soldiers for both sides of the conflict.

On March 3, 1873, Congress passed an act that allowed for all honorably discharged veterans of the Civil War to be buried in a national military cemetery along with a gravestone. In February of 1879 Congress passed an act that the government would erect the same gravestones for Union soldiers buried in private cemeteries, typically a simple white marble tablet stone, holding the name and rank of the departed soldier. From this point on historically the majority of tablet stones erected in American cemeteries were to mark veterans gravesites.

Monument era booms





After the civil war finally ended, there was a great desire to commemorate numerous war hero’s, specific battles and local regiments in towns, counties, and battlefields.

Major General John Fulton Reynolds was the highest ranking officer killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, and had the first monument erected. It was dedicated in 1872, and was cast from four bronze cannon barrels. His large life like statue, was placed on top of a sizable granite base and plinth block. Both the era of large monuments composed from stone, and cast metals, and the era of granite cemetery monuments was about the explode into the masses.

Bronze sculptures have been cast for thousands of years since at least ancient Greece. Bronze is primarily made from about 90% copper and 10% tin, with  smaller amounts of other alloys. Combined with technological advances and the desire to create large memorials, vast numbers of statues were cast after the civil war.

Bronze is a very durable material, but also very expensive to create. Some historic cemetery monuments did incorporate bronze elements, but large scale usage was cost prohibitive.

American ingenuity paved the way for an alternative to the costly bronze, another metal that looked like bronze or stone, but was much less expensive. This new metal not only was cast into civil war statues and monuments, but also became a common type of cemetery monument in a specific transitional time period. The Monumental Bronze Company was organized and established in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the  year of 1874.

Instead of the costly copper needed to create bronze, this new metal was composed of almost pure zinc, a much less costly material. A process was created to cast these hollow monuments, which look very much like stone. They were called white bronze, a brilliant marketing move, as bronze was very fashionable during the Victorian era.

Regional affiliates were formed and for a time another material was an option for both cemetery monuments, as well as statues. It was touted as being less costly and more enduring then stone, and this proved true when compared to most marbles.

They were also very light compared to stone, as they were really just a shell, hollow under the thin veneer of metal, so a stone monument that might have weighed in at 1000 pounds, would have only weighed around 150 pounds in zinc.

The stone industry was a very powerful force in this time period, before modern concrete won over the commercial construction industry and they convinced some of the more prestigious cemeteries such as Mt Auburn to ban any monuments not made from stone. Even so the zinc monument business flourished for a few decades, before metals became too valuable during WW1.

In America, the company’s records show that its soldiers and sailors statues are standing on village and city greens in 31 of 48 states, few realize they are constructed from zinc but their blue, gray cast gives them away to a trained eye.

The only major preservation issue has turned out to be the lack of internal support on some of the larger zinc monuments,, that can sometimes cause the lower base to distort, under the weight of entire monument.

Golden Period of American Memorials

The period between the civil war the world war 1 should be considered the golden age of American memorials.

Monuments became larger and less expensive as they were mass produced in stock patterns and sizes. Some monument companies still unloaded large blocks of stone off railroad flatbeds and sawed and carved unique monuments as needed, but many others began to order pre- made monuments from manufacturers near quarries, right along the train tracks.

The marble industry was in full force quarrying and cutting tremendous volumes of stone largely from Vermont, for use indoors for ornament and to pave floors and outdoors to clad buildings, and build monuments. Granite was being quarried in increasing quantities, at first for foundation stones, monument bases, and less detailed applications, but soon to be competing with all aspects of the building and monument industry.  Sandstones and limestone were regionally being quarried in great amounts, such as the brownstone from Portland Connecticut. And, the aforementioned zinc monuments were also actively being marketed.

Mail Order Monuments

In 1888, Richard Sears first used a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry.

In the1897 spring catalog, Sears began offering cemetery-related products for sale, which included grave guards and arches, made of round iron frame work with coiled wire tassels on each post.

Then in the 1900 fall Sears catalog, Monuments constructed from Royal Blue Vermont marble were first advertised, ranging from small, simple 2 piece marble monuments called markers, starting at about  $5. Ranging to the fairly large 3 piece pillar monuments, toping out at about $27, plus around 2-6 cents per carved letter for inscription work.

 By the time the 1902 Spring catalogue was distributed, an entire memorial department was established, and a separate flyer was produced.. Sears Roebuck sold cemetery monuments in the general catalogs through the 1949 Fall catalog.

Click Here for part 1