Copyright August, 1997, Wayne Bednersh


Black’s 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 1880’s 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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