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Tradition Of The Designer Julep Cup Lives On In Shelbyville

Eagle Cartouche & Presidential Initials
Courtesy Wakefield-Scearce Galleries
Eagle Cartouche & Presidential Initials

One of the many traditions associated with the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep — the bourbon cocktail served at the Derby and at numerous Derby-related gatherings.

These days, juleps are served in a variety of glasses or cups. But many hosts hold fast to the tradition of serving the drink in specially designed silver cups.

Matt Burnett is CFO of the Wakefield-Scearce Galleries in Shelbyville, an antiques gallery that for decades has put its unique stamp on the julep cup. Burnett's grandfather, Mark J. Scearce, owned a Shelbyville jewelry store during World War Two.

"There was silver rationing going on at the time," Burnett said. "So, his shelves were getting kind of sparse of hollowware.”

Scearce took out a newspaper ad offering to buy back old silver. He found himself drawn to julep cups that some people brought in and decided to develop his own style of cup. He and a friend started making the cups themselves, but they weren’t satisfied with the quality, so they farmed out the work to a silversmith in Rhode Island.

“He always loved the idea of the English hallmark system," said Burnett of his grandfather. "They had hallmarks on the bottom, like the reigning monarch, the date it was made, where it was made, the purity of it. So he wanted to do an American spin on that.”

So, Scearce developed his own hallmark.

At the bottom of his cups, there's a cartouche with an eagle inside it and the initials of the president at the time the cup was made. Burnett said there's also a Roman numeral two, when appropriate, signifying a second term. When a president leaves office, their julep cup is no longer produced.

Scearce commissioned a few prototypes during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, but his cups didn’t hit the retail market until Harry Truman assumed office. Every president has received a congratulatory cup, engraved with the presidential seal. All of them, from Truman to Obama, have responded with a thank you note. Others have gone a step further, ordering more cups as gifts.

One October, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, Scearce received a phone call from Washington. It was LBJ himself with a Christmas order.

“And (he) said, ‘I want 650 cups,’" Burnett said. "He wanted to give them to cabinet members and people in certain departments. My grandfather was like, ‘President Johnson, you know, you want these in six weeks!?' And if anybody knows how Johnson was, he was like ‘Well, Scearce, I know you can do it, you can get it done.’ And he got it done, he got it there.”

Today, the sterling silver julep cups designed by Wakefield-Scearce Galleries retail for about $850, depending on the commodities market. Some of the harder to find cups have sold on the secondary market for several thousand dollars.

As for which current candidate’s initials will be on the next presidential julep cup, Burnett said it won’t have much bearing on the market -- serious collectors will continue to collect.

“And there’s people who won’t touch a Republican cup and people who won’t touch a Democratic cup," he said. "It’s funny how partisan things are, simple as a cup. You know, we just make them, we just mark them like it’s called."

And the legacy of small-town jeweler Mark Scearce is preserved.

“You know, my grandfather, I always considered him a country boy," Burnett said. "To know that his work and those cups and his ideas are all over the world is fun.”

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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