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The St. Thomas White Bronze Company: A Diffusion of Innovations Perspective

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CHARM 2013
Proceedings
353
The St. Thomas White Bronze Company:
A Diffusion of Innovations Perspective
Leighann C. Neilson
Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
During the years 1883 to 1900, the White Bronze Company of St. Thomas, Ontario (Canada) sold a
large number of white bronze grave monuments throughout Canada (Stewart, 1989). Their product,
manufactured from pure zinc, was superior to competitors’ products along several dimensions, has
never been improved upon, and yet has not been manufactured in over 70 years (Rotundo, 1989).
There are, of course, many reasons why a product and indeed a company may fail and previous
researchers have suggested several reasons for the demise of white bronze monuments. However, what
has been lacking from the literature to date in a comprehensive account of why a product with clear
relative advantage had such a short life span. By conducting an historical analysis using Rogers’s
(2003) Diffusion of Innovations theory as an organizing framework, this paper seeks to pull the
various lines of reasoning in the literature together and provide that comprehensive account.
To date, the marketing history literature has not really engaged with the various companies which
make up the ‘death care industry funeral homes, cemeteries, cremation services and monument-
makers. Yet, the industry should be of interest to marketing historians since gravestones represent one
of the first durable ‘mass customized’ consumer goods; combining personalization with standardized
manufacturing techniques (Norris, 1988). Elliott (2010) has argued that the project of commemorating
the American Civil War dead marks a turning point in the monument industry in North America as it
shifted from craft to mechanized, mass production techniques [1]. He argues further that this
innovation was fostered not by traditional craftsmen but by entrepreneurs and businessmen putting
technology, capital and labour together.
Previous Research
Previous marketing research has focused on regulatory issues within the death care industry (Sommer,
Nelson and Hoyt, 1985; Kopp and Kemp, 2007a, b), and public policy issues surrounding the
vulnerability of the grieving (Andreasen, 1984; Gentry et al., 1995). In addition, a series of earlier
articles reported on issues related to the regulation of channels of distribution and monopolistic
methods used within the death care industry (Werner and Bechtol, 1969; Werner, Bechtol and Duggan,
1973; Werner and Knapp, 1977, 1982). Recent consumer research has dealt with death-ritual
consumption (Bonsu and Belk, 2003; Zhao and Belk, 2008) and consumer behavior at the end of life
(Fan and Zick, 2004), as well as how the awareness of death influences materialism, conspicuous
consumption and consumer decision making (Arndt et al., 2004). However, the history of the grave
monument industry seems not to have been the subject of much research attention from marketers.
Outside of the marketing literature, there is a fairly extensive historical literature detailing not only
the manufacture of and market for grave monuments but also the social and cultural aspects of death
and commemoration. To date, the most complete historical account of the use of white bronze for
grave monuments is that of Barbara Rotundo (1989). Her research details the history of the
Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut from its beginning in 1877, through the
opening of multiple subsidiaries (1881-1909), until its eventual dissolution in 1939. Rotundo (1989, p.
266) offers several explanations for the demise of Monumental Bronze and its subsidiaries including:
technical obsolescence, changing fashions after WWI, competitor’s marketing actions, the failure of
zinc to gain acceptance as an artistic material with taste-setters, and the subsequent banning of white
bronze markers by some leading American cemeteries. Other commentators have followed Rotundo in
suggesting that white bronze monuments were not seen as being in good taste, but rather as cheap
imitations which were untested and unsuitable for commemorating loved ones (Trask, 1984).
Marketing mix issues have also been raised; McIlwraith (1997) has questioned the use of catalogues as
a channel of distribution while other researchers have pointed out that the products may have been
priced too low. Yet, the sheer number of monuments sold and still existing in graveyards across
The St. Thomas
White Bronze
Company:
A Diffusion of
Innovations
Perspective
354
Canada and the United States seems to question the validity of at least some of these arguments. By
placing the arguments within a Diffusion of Innovations framework (Rogers, 2003), we can reconcile
some of these arguments, further examine them in terms of elements of marketing strategy, and
perhaps better understand the company’s fortunes. Further, by working through an historical example
of innovation diffusion, we may also identify boundary conditions to the application of the theory.
A Diffusion of Innovations Perspective
One of the most frequently cited theories of how innovations spread through a society is that of Everett
M. Rogers [2]. Rogers’s framework, as detailed in the 5th edition of his book, Diffusion of Innovations
(2003), meshes well with marketing theory. For example, Rogers’s description of the innovation
development process beginning with the recognition of a (consumer) need or problem is closely
aligned with the traditional marketing concept, and descriptions of the product development process
(Kotler, et al., 2011). His theory has been used extensively in management research, including in the
marketing discipline.
Rogers (2003, p. 5) defines diffusion as, “the process in which an innovation is communicated
through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.” He identifies five
attributes of innovations (relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability and observability)
and their influence on the rate of adoption. He also details marketing actions that can be taken (e.g.,
offering an incentive to speed adoption, the positioning of an innovation relative to existing products).
The full paper applies various aspects of the Rogers framework to facilitate understanding of the
failure of white bronze grave monuments to reach critical mass.
Data Sources
The business records for the St. Thomas White Bronze Company of St. Thomas, Ontario and its parent
company, Monumental Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, have not been found and may no
longer exist (Rotundo, 1989). Researchers must turn to other records in order to piece together the
companies’ histories: contemporaneous accounts in local newspapers, city directories from the time
period, business records of companies who did business with the focal companies, local histories,
promotional materials (e.g., catalogs), and white bronze monuments themselves. In addition to
traditional microform sources, many of these records have now been digitized and made available
through sources which are somewhat unusual for marketing history researchers such as the
Ancestry.com searchable genealogy database. Family historians and others interested in recording and
preserving local history have also made a wealth of photographic materials available via the Internet.
All of these sources have been tapped in order to create the research account but, in addition, I had
access to a rather unique collection of industry journals addressing the concerns marble and granite
monument wholesalers and retailers, such as The Monumental News and Stone, recently assembled and
held in the Archives and Research Collections at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Ontario.
Notes
[1] The parent company, Monumental Bronze Co., sold a prodigious number of Civil War soldier
statues (both Union and Confederate) after the American Civil War and, along with its subsidiaries,
enjoyed a similar success with sales of grave markers (Grissom, 2009).
[2] A search using the ‘cited reference search’ feature of the Web of Science database on January
13, 2013 revealed 3,226 citations across multiple scholarly literatures.
Sample References
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Bonsu, S. K. and Belk, R.W. (2003), “Do Not Go Cheaply into That Good Night: Death-Ritual
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CHARM 2013
Proceedings
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The St. Thomas
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Company:
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Innovations
Perspective
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Plate 1. White Bronze
monument, Yarmouth, N.S.
Plate 2. Detail of monument showing
customization
p
late
Plate 3. Monument dates to 1890 Plate 4. Maker’s mark: White Bronze Co.
St. Thomas Ont.
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Looking for Old Ontario: Two Centuries of Landscape Change
  • T F Mcilwraith
McIlwraith, T.F. (1997), Looking for Old Ontario: Two Centuries of Landscape Change, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.