STERLING SILVER COURTHOUSES

I first became interested in Courthouse history when I was on a vacation trip in Arizona. Several years ago, my wife and I were in Prescott, an intriguing little county seat in the central part of the state looking for antique shops. Unexpectedly, a magnificent turn-of-the-century courthouse building was before us in a beautifully landscaped central square/park. The complexity and majesty of the building was breathtaking when compared to the surrounding commercial and residential buildings.


Upon returning home, I examined my spoon collection and found several examples of BEAUTIFULLY HAND ENGRAVED courthouse spoons. Previously I had not given these pieces much consideration, but now I was intrigued by the detailed buildings and the exquisite quality of the engraving in these sterling silver teaspoon bowls. Since then, I have increased the number of these "rare spoons" to the point where this is the largest known collection of hand engraved sterling Courthouse Spoons in the world.

Albert Lea, Minnesota                                         Aurora, Nebraska

The central site of most courthouse buildings gives us our first clue as to their significance. The city was literally built around the building and in many cases the streets are number from that central location.

Aberdine, South Dakota                                 Allegan, Michigan

Our second clue is the great size, complexity and detail in the construction of these buildings. The powerful rough stone exterior masonry was designed to evoke the visual emotion of the individual and symbolized permanence. The unrivaled majesty of the building was to show the power of the government and to awe the beholder. The strong balance between horizontal and vertical massing and the solidity of the Roman arches was intended to extend tradition by a thousand years and would evoke not only the power but the continuity of the past. The interior, by contrast, would usually be of a sleek smooth material such as marble or highly polished wood which would give the feeling of an ever changing flow from the past to the future.

Austin, Minnesota                          Bakersfield, California

The roof of a courthouse was very important to the architects and this fact is emphasized on these spoons. The relationship between the building and the sky symbolized the importance of the technology and the power of humankind. The architects topped their buildings with turrets and pyramids and with statues and finials and other ornamentation. In an asymmetrical style which appeared to change as the sun moved across the sky, the distinctive roof was an ever changing kaleidoscope of shapes and shadows. And in the center there would often be a massive stone tower or a dome which dwarfed all nearby buildings, dominating the skyline and thrusting itself in a powerful vertical movement right into heaven itself. The roof line and the ornament heaped upon it, representing every culture, symbolized the new ideal of American justice.

                    Billings, Montana                                Bryan, Ohio

Our third clue is the beautifully landscaped park-like setting. The plants and trees were designed to humanize the building and many of the spoons have trees engraved on them. The erection of large marble statues of past heroes was designed to develop a sense of history and stir patriotic feelings. Overall, the intent was to demonstrate to all the citizenry that this was a building of utmost importance and that the proceedings inside the building were of much greater importance than one’s ordinary work-a-day life.

              Bloomington, Illinois                                                Cadiz, Ohio

But why were these spoons created? Why was a skilled engraver willing to spend hours delicately engraving a detailed picture of a courthouse into the bowl of a silver teaspoon?

         Central City, Nebraska                                      Cando, North Dakota

A little research revealed the answer. When a new courthouse was dedicated, it was a major event for the community. The mayor would often declare a local holiday. At the courthouse's dedication, large ribbon cutting ceremonies were attended by thousands of people from throughout the county. The local school bands would lead a parade through the town. Presidents, Governors and local Dignitaries would often make long-winded pronouncements as to how this new courthouse would make this a better and safer community.

Cherokee, Iowa                                      El Paso, Texas                    

Local jewelers would anticipate these ceremonies and they would arrange to have a few spoons engraved with a picture of their new building and the name of the community. Some were presented to the visiting dignitaries as commemorative gifts and the rest were sold as commemorative souvenirs. Silver manufacturers usually tried to have the local jewelers order an even dozen. In those cases the manufacturer had its own staff do the delicate bright cut engraving. In other cases, the local jeweler commissioned a local engraver to do the artwork. Because of the expenditure of money and time only a few spoons were created for each courthouse and many have not survived the ravages of the last century which saw massive melting of silver objects.

                              Rock Island, Illinois

I particularly enjoy the way the windows were cut using the bright cutting technique. The effect creates the illusion that a light is on inside the building. I am also impressed by the engravers skillful use of perspective and chiaroscuro in creating these miniature works of art (roughly 1” by 1.5”).

Since many of these buildings no longer exist or have been modified over the years, the remaining spoons should be treasured as an important part of our communal heritage. In addition the masterful engraving skills demonstrated on these spoons makes them excellent examples of an artform that is no longer readily available.