The Evolution of Trophies: From Ancient Times to Modern Day

When looking at trophies today, one will quickly notice that many come in the form of cups. Professional hockey has the Stanley Cup. Golf has the Ryder Cup, and the Wimbledon tennis competition was created in 1877 but was replaced by The Challenge Cup.

There are many other examples, but digging into the history of trophies in the form of cups is an excellent starting point for discussing the evolution of trophies over the centuries. That’s because it shows the profound influence of the ancient past on our trophies and awards models today.

The Cup

Some historians argue (without much evidence) that cup trophies may have taken their inspiration from the famous Holy Grail, the chalice said to be used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.

However, a theory on more solid ground predates Christianity by many centuries. For example, in the ancient Greek Olympic games, first held in 776 B.C., the winning athletes were showered with numerous awards, one of which was sometimes an urn or amphora filled with olive oil.

So Greek Olympic urn may have been the first cup-like trophy. The Greek athletic heroes were showered with an array of other prizes, from laurel wreaths worn on the head, twisted olive branches, awards of gold and silver coins and sometimes even a life-size athlete statue erected in the town square.

The many trophies in the forms of cups you see today at top sporting events to trophies given for the smallest, most minor achievement all demonstrate a bright line of history traced back to ancient Greece.

Indeed, it’s significant to note that the word trophy comes from the Greek word “tropaion,” describing a memorial item given for a war victory.

The Middle Ages

At the risk of skipping centuries of other traditions, let’s skip now to the Middle Ages, from 476 A.D. to about 1450 A.D.

Many of the significant trophy types used today originated in this period. This was when you began to see trophies in the form of plates, platters, or dishes.

An excellent example of a plate trophy is the trophy given to the Wimbledon women’s tennis competition winner. It’s called the Venus Rosewater Basin.

In medieval England, a highly prized item was the rosewater dish used to wash hands after a meal. It’s called a rosewater dish because rose-scented water was poured into a dish from an ewer.

The average peasant did not own a rosewater dish. Because such items were only afforded by the elite and powerful, such as kings, lords, barons, earls and sundry noble titles, leveraging the symbol of a rosewater dish as a token of reward, as in a trophy, came into being.

Today, many trophies are in the form of plates or “salvers.” The latter is just a much fancier version of a plate. Many football awards are in the form of salvers, as are trophies for other achievements in other fields, such as the arts and sciences.

Time Marches on as Trophies Evolve

After the Middle Ages, other forms of trophies began to emerge, but many failed to catch on to become universal symbols, as did cups, plates, plaques and more.

For example, the oldest known trophy is The Carlisle Bells, created in 1599. Widely acknowledged to be “the oldest existing sporting trophy in the world,” The Carlisle Bells date to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who was awarded to the winner of a horse race.

Shaped like two round metal balls, The Carlisle Bells currently reside at The Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, Cumbria, England. However, the point of the thesis here is that trophies in the form of bells did not catch on universally.

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Trophies Today

Think of all the major awards for various achievements you all see today.

The movies have that universally recognizable statuette, “The Oscar.” The winner of the Super Bowl gets the Lombardi Trophy which is shaped like a football. Soccer’s FIFA Cup trophy depicts two stylized human figures reaching up with their arms to hold up the globe of Earth.

What this tells us about the evolution of the trophy is that the handful of dominant forms from tradition, such as cups, salvors or wreaths, are often replaced by highly specific and customized trophies that directly represent the achievement being recognized.

In short, a trophy today can look like anything we want it to be, and professional trophy providers are more than eager to design unique trophies based on the instructions of the buyer.