Born from the rationing of silver during World War II and the tradition of English silversmiths. The Presidential Mint Julep Cup by Mark J. Scearce embodies tradition and opportunity.
The first prototypes were made during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency, while the initial cups produced for retail were sold during Harry Truman’s administration. Over the years, each new President of the United States has been sent a cup – hand engraved on the side with the Presidential Seal. Today the cups continue to be given as gifts for special occasions, whether it be for a graduation, a wedding, a horse race victor, or as a special gesture of gratitude from the President to a dignitary. In fact, the ambassador to England, ordered a cup engraved with newborn Prince George’s name on it, as well as the date he was christened –presented as a gift to the possible next King of England.
As a trademark of Southern Hospitality, the mint julep cup is known as a traditional southern gift. Mint Juleps are the quintessential Kentucky Derby beverage, with approximately 120,000 consumed each year. One of the best descriptions of this magisterial concoction comes from Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. in a letter written to General William D. Connor dated March 30, 1937, the superintendent of the U.S Military Academy at West Point. In it, he is responding to the General’s request for the mint julep recipe. Here is an excerpt:
“A mint julep is not the product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients, and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the Old South, an emblem of hospitality, and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought.”
Deeply rooted in the heritage of the South, particularly in Kentucky, mint juleps and the silver cups they are served in have been the classic beverage for generations. The question is…how did our mint julep cups get their start?
For my grandfather, Mark Scearce, it all began with an effort to obtain more Old American Silver. As a jeweler during World War II, he experienced first-hand the shortage of silver in America. He made trips to the Midwest, to buy old plate and silver, regardless of condition. He bought old pieces, and then found repair people to make them more appealing.
Finding the American coin silver julep cups fascinating, my grandfather had the desire to copy one of the early Kentucky models. After advertising in local newspapers, he was able to purchase some, and soon found himself enamored with one specific form that featured beaded top and bottom borders by a 19th Century Shelbyville, Ky silversmith.
A Quest to Accumulate Silver
My grandfather teamed up with local friend Paul Bartlett, a talented mechanic. Although neither one of them knew how to make silver items by hand, they managed to acquire silver working tools from a factory that had been dismantled to get started. Once the tools were acquired, the next step was a visit to one of the biggest and best smelting firms and suppliers of the time, Handy and Harman. Without an appointment, my grandfather boldly strode up to the receptionists at the plush office, asking to meet the president of the firm. Waiting hours for a meeting did not faze him, as he describes “I might have a two or three hour wait since I had no appointment. I was determined, so I sat!” After an honest and sincere appraisal, Mr. Neimeir took a great interest in the project – going so far as to offer advice and several books on manufacturing to help get the job done. The meeting turned out to be a hugely successful venture, as Mr. Neimeir assured him that he would receive whatever amount of silver he needed.
There were certainly hiccups along the way, including a dishonest silversmith with poor workmanship that cost him over $3,000. But other relationships proved to be much more beneficial, including the bond created with a silversmith by the name of E.B. McAlpine. That business relationship morphed into a friendship that lasted 30 years, lasting through to Mr. McAlpine’s grandson Jed’s operation of the business.
Our julep cups are distinguished by signature markings: an eagle cartouche combined with the initials of the current President. The design emulates the British hallmark system, which began in the 13th century. My grandfather wanted to create his version of the British hallmarks, an American play on the hallmark. The initials serve as a way to date the cups for posterity.
As the tradition goes, each new President receives a julep cup bearing their initials. Thus far, every President has sent personal letters of thanks, except for one. All of the letters can be seen on display at Wakefield-Scearce Galleries in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Countless other dignitaries have been the recipients of our mint julep cups, including a set for J. Edgar Hoover.
A Very Special Customer
Perhaps the best customer we ever had was President Lyndon Johnson. After discovering our cups bearing his initials at a party hosted by Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, his secretary called for prices. He initially was not interested, but two weeks later personally called my grandfather. After a negotiation, another lasting relationship was established – President Johnson wrote letters to him over the years, before making a larger request. At the end of October one year, he called to ask for 650 cups for Department of State gifts by December 15th. A typical Christmas required 100-150 cups, and this expansive order was compounded by the short turnaround time. When my grandfather told the President the order was too much in too little time, the Commander in Chief responded with “Now Scearce, these are already in the plans and they must be in Washington by December 15th, gift wrapped for Christmas. I believe you can do it so get busy! I will send delivery instructions.” The cups were delivered one full day early.
A Gift for All Occasions
Our mint julep cups have been used by people and organizations from all walks of life, from a proud father wishing to commemorate the marriage of his daughter, all the way up to the President. Here in Kentucky, renowned Keeneland Race Course awards our cups as trophies to horse race winners, and has been doing so for 50 years.
A Personal Touch
Frequently the cups are personalized, and are more commonly used for decoration than for drinking. The initials on the bottom have given the cups special status as a collectors’ item. After a given Presidential term concludes, those initials are retired for good. The production of our mint julep cups is completely driven by the market. If the cups are not ordered, they will not be made.
If interested in our one-of-kind mint julep cups, click here to purchase a cup of Kentucky kindness!