For many years, Joplin and Webb City claimed to be cities built by Jack – “Jack” is Ruby Jack, or Sphalerite, the mineral that contains zinc sulfide. It is the main ore of zinc. Although lead was the metal that first drew miners to the area, zinc was widely used and became the real money maker for the Tri-State District.
The district experienced the typical boom and bust cycles that are common in mining districts around the world. The panic of 1893 and 1907-08 was particularly severe for miners and mine operators. The mining industry here was known as the “poor man” as small operators were the first to search for lead and zinc.
Cooperation between the owners was not common. It was not until the late first decade of the 20th century that the first cooperative association emerged out of concerns about the increase in consumption by miners, namely silicosis and tuberculosis. This group focused on hygiene and safety.
However, with the start of the war in Europe in 1914, the demand for zinc skyrocketed as traditional European sources were cut off and arms construction in the US accelerated. In order to streamline the country’s war production, the federal government encouraged cooperative associations that a few years earlier would have been viewed as monopolies or trusts.
American Zinc Institute
In July 1918, one year after the United States entered World War I, the zinc industry, led by several Tri-State District miners such as Frank Wallower and Charles Orr, founded the American Zinc Institute during a meeting in St. Louis . The institute acted as a clearing house for information on the zinc industry. While other associations for silver, copper, and iron kept their statistics secret, the zinc industry was significantly different in terms of its transparency regarding production and prices.
The war-related boom in demand for zinc led to significant investments in ore production and smelting facilities in all zinc-producing regions. It wasn’t a good sign for a peace economy. The institute published a monthly industry news magazine. Articles from 1919 onwards discussed the prospect of overproduction due to high wartime investments in mines and facilities. Liquidating excess plants was an apparently realistic solution for some consultants that did not go over well with members.
Zinc was mixed with copper to make brass, the first of three main products. The second was steel that was galvanized with a layer of zinc. While galvanized buckets and tubs can be iconic zinc products, galvanized sheet metal was the zinc industry’s greatest commodity.
In third place were zinc shingles and sheets, which had been advertised by companies before the war, but had not found widespread acceptance. In Europe, zinc roofing was widespread in cities like Paris. It was said that 85% of Parisian buildings had zinc roofs. The strength of the zinc roof was its lasting quality. Roofs can easily last 100 years or more. Zinc oxidized, creating a patina that healed minor scratches.
“Make It From Zinc”
When the war ended in November 1918, the demand for brass and other alloys for ammunition suddenly fell. The government is also calling for a decline in galvanized steel so that the zinc roofing industry is the only area where the now excess production can be absorbed.
Unfortunately, the industry hadn’t done much to promote its products beyond its traditional customers, which put it at a significant disadvantage after the war ended. The institute decided to tackle the slowdown with a big boost in advertising in the construction industry under the motto “Make it of zinc”.
The producers were encouraged to act as advertisers targeting the metal. Companies in the Tri-State District put the slogan on their official letterhead and envelopes. Next to the News Herald flag on the left was a box with ore prices and the label “Make it of zinc.” The Chambers of Commerce in Miami, Oklahoma, and Galena, Kansas encouraged members to join the Jasper County’s cities under the theme. For an industry that had the broader “Let George do it” policy, this was an about-face.
The institute translated a Belgian paper on zinc roofs into English for distribution to architects and builders. Architectural service sheets were printed and distributed to builders and published as a courtesy article in the Sheet Metal Workers Journal. The Sheet Metal Contractor’s Association invited an institute member to a place on their program at their 1921 session and encouraged zinc roofing companies to set up booths at the session. One of the prejudices the institute faced was sheet metal workers, who feared that the use of zinc roofs would leave them unemployed if it were widespread.
Despite the Institute’s work, the handwriting was on the wall in the words of a letter from a New York advertising professional, Alfred Hearn, who had worked with it for two years. In 1921, Hearn wrote: “It was unfortunate that the soundness of the plan was so neglected (by membership).” He indicated that zinc would always have a place in the country’s economy, but that the industry would not “take up the question of creating a wider market for zinc products and introducing the public to the benefits of its many and new uses … partial liquidation may be the only solution. “
Surplus production continued to plague the three-state district in the decade of the 1920s. Some buildings, such as the Scottish Rite Cathedral and the Emerson School in Joplin, had zinc roofs, but these were unusual. While the Institute was still serving as an information point, it failed to generate much interest in zinc as an umbrella alternative, which it viewed as the only major market option available at the time. While “Make it of Zink” was supposed to be a rallying cry for the industry, it couldn’t bring back the halcyon days of the World War I boom.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question for him to research, email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.