Antique Spotlight: Silver Julep Cups

Antique Spotlight: Silver Julep Cups

If youíre from Kentucky, then you know mint juleps werenít originally served in glass or plastic ñ back in the day, people were pouring these classic cocktails into a silver julep cup. Weíve got the scoop on why this became the popular serving method, and just how much these classic cups are worth.

How old are they? According to A Taste of Kentucky, mint julep cups — also called ìbeakersî — date back hundreds of years. Even early American silversmiths were crafting these practical cups (Kentucky has a deep silversmith history). The Kentucky Derby Museum claims that the Churchill Downsís president officially introduced the sterling silver julep cup to the Derby in 1951, but it was unofficially holding mint juleps for decades before that. The Bourbon Review estimates that some date back to the early 1800s.

Photo credit:eBay

Why did they become popular? A few reasons ñ first, a common reason that antiques were popular in their heyday, because they were seen as a symbol of power, wealth, and influence to some. Kentucky Homes and Gardens reports that they also were used as trophies as county fairs.

But practically, it also made sense to use the silver cup ñ if you held it only by the top edges and bottom, then a nice white frost forms on the outside. Pretty and practical? Itís no wonder these cups were a hit.

Are they tough to find? They can be ñ it likely depends on what region youíre looking in, as the Kentucky area is obviously more likely to have more of these silver cups than other parts of the country. If you check online auctions, there arenít tons for sale.

How much do they cost? Antique silver julep cups arenít cheap. Donít be surprised to see many price tags over $100, and donít be surprised to see price tags over $1,000 if the cup has a mark that identifies a specific silversmith and time period. A pair of antique silver mint julep cups was appraised by Antiques Roadshow to be worth $4,000 to $5,000 as a set, because the silversmith was popular and the cups dated back to the mid-19th century. Most cups youíll see on, say, online auctions are a few hundred dollars.

Photo credit:Antiques Roadshow

What are some identifying features?

  • Silversmith mark: Look on the bottom of the cup for a silversmith mark and/or name, which offers a little bit of insight into who crafted the cup and when it was made. This can also help an appraiser, too. The Kentucky Homes and Gardens article linked above also discusses some of the popular Kentucky silversmiths of the time.
  • Weight and material: Silver is going to be fairly heavy ñ not a brick, but not as light as plastic. If the cups seem suspiciously light, you might not be dealing with realsilver — you might actually be dealing with silverplated material. Also, silver isnít magnetic ñ so if you notice that itís clinging to the fridge, youíre dealing with a different material.
  • Design: These cups come in different shapes ñ e.g. straight vs. curved ñ and can have different designs as well, from reed or beaded rims on the top and bottom to engravings on the side. Straight shape is probably the most common seen, but donít be surprised to see these subtle differences.
  • Dents: Giant dents will hurt the value, but as Silver Magpies explains, silver is also a soft metal ñ so a few marks wonít be a surprise.

If you come across one of these gems, say ìcheersî to your unique and valuable find!