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Matthews International Corporation is one of the most prominent designers and manufacturers of custom-made identification products. The company has three core businesses, including: custom-made bronze products, graphic imaging, and marking products. Matthews Bronze comprises approximately 50 percent of the firm's revenues and focuses primarily on the design and manufacture of cast bronze products used as memorials in cemeteries. These products include flush bronze memorials, crypt letters, cremation urns, flower vases, and monuments. One of the most famous of the company's bronze memorials marks the grave of Elvis Presley. Matthews Bronze is also the leading American producer of cremation equipment, as well as the number one builder of mausoleums in the United States. The Graphic Imaging business, which comprises approximately 35 percent of company revenues, provides pre-press services, printing plates, and imaging systems to the packing industry. The company's printing plates are used by firms within the packaging industry to print corrugated boxes, for example, with lettering and graphics that assist in selling the packaged product. The company's Marking Products business, comprising about 15 percent of its revenues, designs and manufacturers equipment used to mark and identify such items as industrial products and packaging containers. For most of its long history, Matthews International has been known for its bronze memorial products, but during the middle and late 1990s management has made a concerted effort to strengthen its product base by expanding the Graphics Imaging business through a strategic acquisitions program.
The founder of the company, John Dixon Matthews, was born and lived most of his early life in Sheffield, England. Although Matthews was not formally educated, he was talented with his hands, and at an early age became an apprentice to learn the intricacies of the engraving profession. The young man learned his trade quickly and soon was designing and making such items as branding irons, stamps for wooden crates, and ornate engravings for small businesses that desired unique signs of identification. As his apprenticeship ended, Matthews decided that the best opportunity for advancement, and for making more money, was to establish his own engraving firm. The likelihood of his achieving this goal in England was minimal, however, due to the fact that there were many highly skilled engraving firms engaged in intense competition with each other. As a result, Matthews traveled to the United States to establish his own company.
From the time Matthews opened the door of his company for business, it was a thriving concern. Having established his firm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a growing metropolis with a burgeoning population, the young man was inundated with requests for identification products. Throughout the first 40 years of his business, from 1850 to 1890, his company focused on manufacturing and distributing various products such as branding irons for cattle ranches in the Great Plains and Southern States, ornate engravings that were used in the decoration of public buildings, military stamping dies used by the U.S. Army, especially during the period of the Civil War and immediately afterward, and stamps for crates, packaging, and different sorts of large bundles. As the company grew and prospered, revenues continued to increase at a steady pace. When John Dixon Matthews passed away during the waning years of the 19th century, his company was on the verge of a major transformation.
During the 1890s, the company established the Bronze Tablet Department, specifically intended to design and prepare patterns for bronze plaques and other items that later would be cast by other firms. Historically, bronze had been used since 2,500 BC when metalsmiths living in the eastern part of the Mediterranean discovered that an addition of very small amounts of tin to molten copper produced bronze. These metal smiths soon learned that this new alloy was castable, allowing it to be widely used in casting and creating swords, helmets, and breastplates for war, as well as for statues and decorative articles such as jewelry. As the skills of metalsmiths developed, they found that cast bronze was ideal for artistic expression, since the metal was malleable, easily cast for detail, easy to work with, and exhibits an attractive natural color. As the centuries rolled onward, hollow casting was discovered and used by many artists to produce bronze statues honoring those men who had become heros to their nation. Although the use of bronze in art had declined dramatically and was not widespread either in Europe or the United States during the 19th century, the Bronze Tablet Department at Matthews Company was convinced there was a growing market for such items. Thus, as the company finished and detailed the castings done by other suppliers and shipped them to customers around the United States, its reputation for quality bronze workmanship began to grow. By the start of the 20th century, the company had garnered a national reputation for its identification work using bronze.
Growth and Expansion in the Early 20th Century
The company's success continued during the early decades of the 20th century, and revenues steadily increased. Yet in 1927 the company developed a product that not only changed the direction of its business but affected the history of what has become known as "Memorialization." Throughout the ages people from around the world memorialized the dead by constructing ornate tombs that identified the person as someone of importance. Ground burial and mausoleum entombment were the traditionally preferred methods of disposition and, since the rise of Christianity, cemeteries were created for resting places of the deceased and as a place for the living to seek consolation and peace. Memorialization primarily consisted of stone memorials with the date of birth, date of death, and name of the deceased.
American cemeteries, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries, were filled with and characterized by memorials of stone carving and sculpture, with an occasional enhancement of bronze from time to time. Memorials encompassed all budgets and a wide variety of tastes, from large, ornate, exquisitely decorated private family mausoleums built for wealthier people to simple and plain upright monuments carved with the person's birth and death dates and the first and last names of the deceased. One of the most important developments in the history of memorialization occurred in 1906, when Dr. Hubert Eaton designed and built Forest Lawn Cemetery in California. A turning point in memorialization, Eaton combined stone, bronze, and marble to create a revolution in funerary sculpture. Within a few short years, Forest Lawn had become one of the most famous cemeteries in the United States, known for its works of memorialization in a variety of materials.
In 1927 the employees at Matthews Tablet Department were approached by a family that wanted to exhibit its affection and respect for a deceased member by commissioning an entirely bronze memorial. Matthews accepted the commission and cast the very first flush bronze memorial for a gravesite in Oaklawn Cemetery in Jacksonville, Florida. The first flush bronze memorial designed, cast, and installed in a cemetery within the United States, the piece immediately revolutionized memorialization in American cemeteries. Soon Matthews had garnered a reputation as the preeminent designer and manufacturer of flush bronze memorials for use in cemeteries, and people from across the United States began placing orders with the company.
Developments in Bronze Memorialization from the Mid-20th Century Through the Present
As the company grew, its expertise in bronze memorials grew apace. The men working at Matthews Bronze were recognized as the best in the business for casting bronze for freestanding memorial sculptures. Much more preferable than stone or wood, the durability and lightness of bronze allowed Matthews Bronze a freedom of conception and design that was virtually impossible in stone and other materials. As a natural outgrowth of its work in the field of bronze memorialization, the most important development for the company during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s accompanied the rise of interest in the process of cremation. Cremation goes back to the prehistoric period and developed a large following in the major world cultures of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, India, and Japan. Burning the body released it from its corporeal, earthly form and purified the soul on its journey to the realm of the spiritual world. The first documented case of cremation in the United States was reported in 1792, but it was not until the late 19th century that the number of cremations began to increase. By 1913, there were more than 50 crematories located throughout the United States and, during the 1950s and 1960s, the number grew rapidly.
For Matthews, the rise in the interest in cremation meant that people wanted permanent placements of the remains of their deceased loved ones, and memorializations assisted in preserving the memories of love, devotion, and respect. People were no longer limited in their choices for cremation memorialization, as in the days of the Ancient Greeks and Roman Empire, because of the wide array of memorialization options that Matthews offered to satisfy an individual's taste, including outdoor Cremorials, unique and distinctive columbarium estates, elegant and uniquely designed handcrafted urns, attractive niches, and highly personalized memorial plaques that could be set in gardens or parks. By the end of the 1960s, Matthews Bronze was the leading designer and manufacturer of cremation memorializations throughout the United States.
Starting in 1961, the company has designed and cast some of the most notable bronze memorials in the United States. One of the company's high-profile projects includes hand-crafting and casting the plaques used in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Matthews Bronze cast the metal plaque situated on the top of Pike's Peak to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composition of "America the Beautiful." The company cast bronze memorialization tributes for some of the most popular celebrities in America, including Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Humphrey Bogart, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Alan Ladd, Michael Landon, Liberace, Groucho Marx, and Selena. Many people regard Matthews Bronze as having made a memorial for the most famous singer in the world--Elvis Presley. His bronze memorial, which is situated on the southern end of his estate at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, is considered to be the most visited piece of work ever cast by Matthews Bronze, with more than 700,000 people visiting the site annually. Another one of Matthews Bronze creations includes the very famous identification plaque cast for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
The company also has done a significant number of bronze memorials for American veterans of wars dating from World War I to the Gulf War in the early 1990s. One of the company's most recent bronze memorials included the installation of a tribute to the men and women of the 14th Quartermaster Detachment Unit at the U.S. Army Reserve Center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, which suffered the most casualties of any unit in the entire Allied Force throughout the duration of the hostilities between the United Nations and Iraq. The memorial includes the boots, a rifle, and helmet of a fallen soldier, life-sized American soldiers cast in bronze reflecting on the fate of their fallen comrade-in-arms, and an imposing bronze eagle, which symbolizes the bravery and honor of American soldiers in battle.
During the 1990s, in addition to its hold on the market for bronze memorializations, Matthews decided to expand its presence in the Graphics Imaging market. Seven acquisitions were made in 1998 alone, the most important including an interest in O.N.E. Color Communications L.L.C., a digital graphics firm located in California, and S+T Gesellschaft fur Reprotechnik mbH, a well-respected manufacturer of photopolymer printing plates in Germany. The overseas acquisition, in combination with the bronze casting work done for the Sultan of Brunei and the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority, provided the company with approximately ten percent of its total revenues for the 1998 fiscal year.
Matthews International Corporation is clearly the undisputed leader in the bronze memorialization market, and its dominance is likely to continue for years to come. Nonetheless, management at the company has been astute enough to realize that there is wisdom in a certain amount of diversity when the markets experience a downturn, and so it has implemented a long-term strategic plan to enhance the position of its graphics imaging business, as well as its marking products business, both of which are showing signs of growth and expansion.