– Written by Leara Rhodes –
Southern hospitality is a phrase many southerners would examine and then walk away from, knowing there was no need to explain – it is a lifestyle.
Some southerners know the cultural meanings behind the rituals of preparing a mint julep. Some southerners know why silver cups have to be used and where the roses should be placed. It is part of southern genetics; but, for those who are not southern to the core, some explanation is necessary. What is the “cup of hospitality?”
A julep cup is a southern naming that has become a cup of hospitality in four ways: to celebrate winners as trophies, to commemorate special occasions, to celebrate each President of the United States, and to give to charity. If that julep cup happens to be silver, another layer of southern history is added. And, if that cup has a unique recipe of mint juleps, an even different layer of southern history can be talked about for years and years. A julep cup embraces history, albeit a southern history.
To celebrate winners, silver julep cups were given as “blue ribbons” at county fairs as early as the 1800s. And though cultural memory associates julep cups with horse racing, it wasn’t until 1896 that a silver cup was created and then presented to the winner of the Belmont Stakes.
George Paulding Farnham (1859-1927), an American jewelry designer, sculptor and metallurgist who worked for Tiffany & Co. from 1885 to 1908, made that first cup. Tiffany & Co. was commissioned by August Belmont, Jr. to create a silver cup in memory of his late father August Belmont, the namesake of the Belmont Stakes.
Farnham made the cup using 350 ounces of sterling silver. He crafted a 27-inch-high, acorn shaped bowl supported by a pedestal composed of three thoroughbred horse statues representing the foundation stallions Eclipse, Matchem, and Herod. Costing $1,000 to create, the cup was part of the $4,000 in prize money given to the race winner. A ritual had begun.
When the Belmonts’ horse, Hastings, won the race, the Belmont family kept the trophy until 1926 but then presented the cup to Belmont Park. Each year the winner of the Belmont Stakes is ceremoniously awarded the cup. Farnham made several other trophies for the Belmont Stakes used from 1897 to 1907.
Silver cups were introduced at the Kentucky Derby in 1951. The Keeneland Racecourse has awarded cups as trophies to horse race winners for the past 50 years.
To commemorate special occasions, julep cups have been given as baby gifts. Jill Jayne Read, who was born in eastern Kentucky and who specializes in Kentucky design and the Federal Period as represented through her former Athens businesses, Homeplace and Southern Comforts, grew up with julep cups. “Everybody had them,” she says. “In my family, a newborn was given a baby sized julep cup.”
The Ambassador to England, Matthew Barzun, ordered a cup engraved with newborn Prince George’s name and the date he was christened as a gift to the royal family in 2015. Julep cups have been presented as gifts for special occasions, graduations, weddings, and even to the New College at Oxford in England.
Richard Barksdale Harwell in his 1975 book, “The Mint Julep,” repeats the story of how a julep cup went to Oxford and how the mint julep is celebrated every year. As the story is told, a South Carolinian, William Heyward Trapier, went to Oxford in 1845, gave them the recipe for mint juleps, and provided an endowment to have mint juleps served. He promised to return, and though he never did, each June 1, New College at Oxford reserves an empty place for him at dinner and toasts are given to him with mint juleps. There is a silver cup engraved to New College and any South Carolinian can see the cup by applying to the Steward of Junior Common Room. And though the Oxford cup is revered, some cups have not been appreciated for their style.
In 1806, Thomas Jefferson was bequeathed two silver cups from his dear friend George Wythe. Jefferson commissioned silversmith John Letelier to melt them down along with two other silver mugs and create a set of eight tumblers. He had the cups engraved “GW to TJ” to show he did appreciate Wythe’s generosity.
To celebrate the President of the United States, Mark J. Scearce, who owned a Shelbyville jewelry store during World War II, wanted to create his own julep cups. Since there was silver rationing at the time, Scearce placed newspaper ads to buy old silver. Julep cups were brought in. He liked the beaded top and bottom borders but was unable to get the quality he wanted by doing it himself so he worked with E.B. McAlpine in Rhode Island. This relationship lasted 30 years. Scearce, enthralled by the hallmark system in Britain from the 13th century, developed his own hallmark for the julep cups: a cartouche with an eagle inside it and the initials of the president at the time the cup was made. For some, there is also a Roman numeral two, signifying a second term. When a president leaves office, their julep cup is no longer produced.
The prototype for the Presidential julep cup was made during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency but was marketed during Harry Truman’s office. Every President since has received a congratulatory cup engraved with the presidential seal. All of them, from Truman to Obama, have responded with a thank you note. Their letters are on display at Wakefield-Scearce Galleries in Shelbyville, Kentucky.
Once these julep cups hit the market, additional cups were ordered. Lyndon Johnson ordered 650 cups for gifts and wanted them in six weeks and got them. Even J. Edgar Hoover ordered a set. Today the sterling silver julep cups designed by Wakefield-Scearce Gallaries retail for about $850.
Charities are not ignored when it comes to the cups of hospitality. Julep cups crafted by Woodford Reserve Global Brand Ambassador, Tom Vernon, are sold to raise money for non-profit organizations. After twelve years, they have raised $425,000 to fund the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Wounded Warrior Equestrian Program, and the Kentucky Derby Museum.
They create two types of cups. The first one is the “Nobel Cup,” that has 18-karat yellow gold over sterling silver and features the shapes of a horse and rider, a crown, rose, and horseshoe and sells for $1,000. The second is the “Royal Cup,” that is gold-plated sterling silver with a 24-karat heavy reliquary quality gold plating and sells for $2,500. Woodford Reserve produces only 90 Nobel cups and 15 Royal cups. These cups can be bought at Woodfordreservemintjulep.com on a first-come, first-served basis through noon the day before the Derby race. Woodford Reserve has announced each year’s charity in April.
There are many types of julep cups, some in pewter, some in glass, some big and some small. Julep cups have been marketed by states: Kentucky, Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, Texas, and New York as well as by other titles such as fly fishing, golf, scales of justice, gentry Award, Patrick Henry, Windsor, Oxford, Governor’s and by silversmith names. The proper julep cup, though, according to people like Lexington’s Samuel Judson, who in a 1908 Chicago Tribune article explained how to make a mint julep by first saying, “Take a silver cup – always a silver cup.”
The use of silver may have a class bias, only the rich could afford silver. Read says that most Europeans drank out of metal because glass would break. “Flatware was inherited at the turn of the century. We did not have access to silver until mines out west were discovered,” says Read. Silver mining in the United States began on a major scale with the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1858.
Silver also may have a cultural bias, people of the South amassed savings by acquiring precious metals. Barbara Mann, Athens-based artist, jeweler and metalsmith, agrees. “People didn’t put money in a bank and used metals as currency.
Silver in America could be melted down and turned into something else. It was a way of stock piling.” She remembered how silver was often given as wedding gifts, but the practice has since declined. “There used to be a real pleasure in using silver service,” she says, stressing that silver is something that is going to last.
A more practical reason for using silver is of all the metals, silver is the highest thermal conductivity known for any material.
In fact it has the highest electrical and thermal conductivity known for any material. It is strong, malleable and ductile, and can endure extreme temperature ranges according to the Jefferson National Linear Accelerator Laboratory and corroborated by local Athenian, Gary Noffke, professor emeritus of Metalsmithing at the University of Georgia.
Noffke’s work, which includes a julep cup, is currently in the Exhibition: Crafting History: Textiles, Metals and Ceramics at the University of Georgia, Georgia Museum of Art. Noffke began working in sterling and fine silver in the 1970s and says that making a silver julep cup could take an hour or 10 years, depending on surface decorations and the artist. He appreciates the beauty of the silver and likes the look even of used silver. “Dents and scratches are seen as part of life, part of the beauty of the silver.”
Silversmithing was considered a luxury trade as most people used items that were made of wood, pewter or other cheaper materials. Many large towns in the thirteen colonies had at least one working silversmith. The 18th-century silversmith was thought of as someone akin to a sculptor. Both had to know how to shape their materials with artistic talent, taste and design.
Silversmiths fashioned their objects from thick pieces of metal called ingots. Upon an anvil, the ingot would be hammered until it was thin enough. It was then placed over a stake where it was shaped and smoothed. The last step was polishing the piece with pumice, decomposed limestone (known as tripoli) and powdered red iron ore (known as jeweler’s rouge). Paul Revere, a silversmith in Boston, made a silver beaker this way in 1795; actually he made an American silver beaker in the Louis XVI style.
Throughout history, silver has been highly valued. Pure silver, as with gold, is too soft for jewelry. To boost its strength and durability, silver is combined with other metals. Sterling silver must contain at least 92.5 percent pure silver and less than 7.5 percent other metals. Jewelry stamped “sterling” or “925” is sterling silver. Coin silver is an American standard that got its name from the pre-Civil War practice of silversmiths melting down assorted pounds, francs, and pieces of eight for their craft. The term signifies a composition of at least 90 percent silver.
Mint Julep in the Cup
What goes into the silver julep cup that needs to be cold? Mint julep, of course, a drink that has a long history. John Davis, in his book, “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States: 1798-1802” describes a julep as “a dram of spiritous (sic) liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
Henry Clay, a Kentucky statesman in the early 1800s, introduced the julep to the Round Robin Bar of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., (now Willard InterContinental). Another reference was in the 1840 book by British Captain Frederick Marryat, “Second Series of a Diary in America.” In 1862, the “Bar-Tenders Guide: How to Mix rinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion” by Jerry Thomas includes five recipes for mint juleps.
Through history, the mint julep has taken on a life of its own, to include how to sip the julep. In the 1800s, a rye grass straw was used but tended to dissolve in liquid. That’s when Marvin C. Stone patented the modern drinking straw made of paper in 1888.
He was drinking a mint julep on a hot day in Washington, D.C., and he did not like the taste of the rye. So, he developed and built a machine to make paper straws and glue that would not dissolve in bourbon.
The mint julep life broadens when, according to Churchill Downs’ legend, drinks were in souvenir glasses and sold for 38 cents in 1938, but the glasses disappeared. Thus, management added 25 cents if the patron wanted to keep the glass.
It was in 1939 that the mint julep became the official beverage of the Kentucky Derby and American whiskey the spirit of choice. Silver cups were introduced in 1951. As part of the ritual, the Governor of Kentucky salutes the victorious Derby owner and proposes a toast with his julep at the Winner’s Party.
Derby Days take over springtime in Kentucky. “Restaurants change their menus and everyone has a Derby Pie, a chess pie with pecans and chocolate. Some pies are made with Bourbon, some without,” says Shannah Cahoe Montgomery, photography instructor at the University of Georgia who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky.
Though her parents did not drink, she found a julep cup at a flea market. “I thought, I am from Kentucky, I probably need one of these.” She remembered that during Derby season, all décor had a julep cup with red roses.
“Remember, the horses have to run for the roses.” And at the end of the two-minute race, another mint julep disappears and history continues.