Copyright August, 1997, Wayne Bednersh
COMMEMORATIVE COURT-HOUSE SPOONS
Blacks Dictionary defines a court-house as the building occupied for the public sessions
of a court..., but in reality the court-house building is the dominant public perception of
our entire judicial system. The American court-houses were usually sited in a very
prominent spot near the center of town and often occupying an entire city block, on
property which was often donated by a wealthy private individual who had a strong sense
of civic pride.
Architects would labor incessantly to translate the intangible concepts of the law, justice,
equality and liberty into stone buildings which would epitomize these ideals. The
Romanesque court-house buildings were often among the tallest building in the town and
most were suitably equipped with steeples, clock or bell towers, and assemblages of
detail. The architect was able to use these simple yet easy devices to intuitively
demonstrate to all that this was a building of significance and importance. It was not
unusual for a relatively small county to spend upwards of a million dollars on their new
court-house and construction would often last between three and five years. That is a very
significant sum in comparison to the cost of living at the time of construction and today's
equivalent inflation adjusted dollars would significantly strain most modern civic budgets.
To put a million dollars into perspective, a typical attorney at the turn of the last century
would often labor an entire day for less than $5.00.
H.H. Richardson became the leading architect of his era. While he designed many
of the most innovative Victorian buildings, The Allegheny County Court House which he
designed for Pittsburgh was the epitome of the new Romanesque style. The American
public became so enamored by the striking powerful architecture of this building that the
building itself became one of the very symbols of American justice. Numerous
court-house and other public buildings would be designed in the grand "Richardsonian
Romanesque" style from the late 1880s through the first two decades of this century.
The roof of a building was very important to the high Victorians. The relationship
between the building and the sky symbolized the importance of the technology and the
power of humankind. Richardson and later 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 would be the
massive stone tower which dwarfed all nearby buildings, dominating the skyline and
thrusting itself in a powerful vertical movement right into heaven itself. The massive
rough-faced stone facade symbolized permanence and the ornament heaped upon it
representing every culture symbolized the new ideal of American justice.
The powerful rough stone exterior masonry would evoke the visual emotion of the
individual. 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 would 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. The wood carvings would typically be in either the art neuvo
or art deco style whichever was popular at the time of the construction.
By means of this new, yet traditional, style of architecture the Victorian mind was
able to associate the perceived greatness of the past with the modern world and this would
help alleviate the psychic insecurity stemming from the rapid transitional change to the
modern world. The powerful architecture was thus a great "security blanket" which would
protect and enhance the tradition of law and enhance the late Victorian view of
Each building must be unique, because high Victorians saw themselves as
independent creative personalities, and the Romanesque style was infinitely adaptable
because it allowed all of the past styles to be combined as needed by the architect. The
important over-riding theme was that the building must have a very strong emotional
appeal and there was not a strong demand for adherence to historical accuracy as would
the later Beaux-arts architectural styles.
The tradition of giving a piece of valuable silver for special events was well
established and was considered "de rigeur" for many of life's transitions. American society
was undergoing radical and intensive changes, and it was important to try to maintain
continuity. Tradition demanded that the event(s) be celebrated in an appropriate way and
remembrances made out of precious silver were a necessary part of the celebration.
The choice of a moderately priced sterling silver spoon around the beginning of
the 20th century was not accidental. Since the 1500's, babies were gifted with spoons at
their baptism. These spoons typically bore a cast figure of an apostle. The start of a new
life was an important event to the family and to the community. The spoon was associated
with food and of course food is essential to life. A silver spoon was a precious possession
and was often kept for life and it was only used by its designated owner. The phrase "to be
born with a silver spoon" stems from this tradition.
Eventually the spoon came to symbolize more than food serving. It came to
symbolize the beginning of life and later the beginning of anything new. In some cultures a
spoon became part of the marriage ceremony which obviously was the beginning of a new
life for the participants. Sometimes the silver was engraved with dates or initials, but
during the early 19th century in England, caddy spoons were sometimes engraved with
pictures and then used as gifts or momento's to give meaning to important life events.
Thus it is just a short step to make a spoon symbolize a new building, a new post
office, a new library, or a new COURT-HOUSE. A photographic picture or a drawing
would not be sufficient. A gift of precious metal was required. Gold was too expensive;
therefore sterling silver was the logical choice. Traditionally trophies and presentation
pieces were engraved and skilled engravers and chasers were highly paid. The big expense
of the engraving, gilding and enameling would be borne cheerfully because the
ornamentation and engraved initials and dates made the silver much more valuable and, by
inference, made the events depicted much more important.
For the opening of a new courthouse, the local jeweler ever eager to earn a profit,
would sometimes arrange for a few sterling silver spoons to be custom engraved with a
picture of the new building. . Usually a dozen or fewer spoons were made for any one
event. The local jeweler would commission just enough to meet expected demand and he
did not want to over order: first, because of the initial expense and second, he would not
want any "dead stock". Consequently very few of these pieces were made.
Over the intervening years, many of these commemorative pieces and the history
behind them were lost, misplaced, melted, or damaged. During the twentieth century we
have had two major wars which required vast resources and citizens were urged to gather
any unneeded metal and give it to the government so that it could be remelted and reused.
There was also a devastating depression. Many fortunes were lost and many pieces of
silver were sold to scrap metal dealers for cash and thus consigned to the melting pots. In
addition during the 1970's the price of silver was artificially elevated by a silver futures
trading cartel and tens of millions of ounces of old and valuable silver objects were
consigned to the melting pot.
A few of these beautiful hand-engraved commemorative silver spoons did,
however, escape all the perils. Pictures in this article are from the largest known private
collection of these court-house spoons.
Hand-engraving on metal is a lost art. This time honored occupation was a
casualty of technological progress. Before 1900, highly skilled engravers were needed for
all pictures which would be printed. But the success of stone lithography and
chromolithography in the printing industry eliminated much of the demand for metal
engraving. The only remaining jobs for artistic metal engravers was in the precious metals
industry. It is still possible to have an engraver hand engrave initials and dates into silver
objects, but there are virtually no professional engravers left in the world who still retain
the skills to do the level of artistic picture engraving shown on these spoons. Even the
Bureau of Engraving which creates the dies for our paper money has to conduct its own
classes to train people to do this quality of work. A typical silver engraver required almost
ten years of practice before reaching the master status.
At the court-house dedication, large ribbon cutting ceremonies were attended by
thousands of people from throughout the county. The mayor would often declare a local
holiday. The local school band would lead a parade through the town and Presidents,
Governors and local Dignitaries would often make long-winded pronouncements as to
how this new court-house would make this a better and safer community.
Many of the buildings pictured on these spoons either no longer exist or have been
remodeled and converted to other uses while a few continue their daily community service
as the county court-house.
Now with the perspective of almost 100 years of history on our side, we can look
at these quaint old buildings in a new light; but even today, they still retain the power to
evoke a strong emotional response from jaded 20th century observers.
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