Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory

When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory?

The answer has been surprisingly difficult to track down; in fact, after several hours of research I can only advance a couple of plausible theories. For many centuries, a “trophy” was simply something of one’s enemy—a piece of armor, perhaps, or occasionally a body part—that was displayed after a battle as a tangible proof of triumph. This may, of course, have been a cup on occasion, but I have not been able to find any examples of cups designed for the sole purpose of serving as trophies (in particular, for sporting events) until the mid-18th century. This means the inspiration for such a design must have appeared earlier than that.

For Methodists Who Love to Win

One explanation traces the origin of the trophy cup to the “loving cup” designed by theologian John Wesley (1703–1781). Wesley founded the Methodist church, and part of the church’s early rituals included “love feasts”—community gatherings that included a simple meal of bread and water. Although superficially similar to Holy Communion, love feasts were simpler and were conducted by laypeople rather than clergy. Wesley’s loving cup was given two handles so that the water could be passed easily from person to person. The handles and the tradition of passing the cup fit with the trophy cup, although I have not been able to find any explicit evidence that a trophy designer used the loving cup as inspiration.

An alternative theory is advanced by Ian Pickford (of Antiques Roadshow fame). According to Pickford, the modern trophy cup was based on the two-handled “ox-eye” college cup design from the 17th century. Far be it from me to gainsay an antiques expert, but I was not able to corroborate this claim—and even if true, it begs the question of where that design came from or how it came to have its current meaning. If any trophy historians out there would like to chime in with evidence supporting either explanation (or a different one), I’d be all too happy to set the record straight. —Joe Kissell

More Information

Information on cups used as trophies in sporting events:

You can read more about the loving cup at the United Methodist News Service. My first clue that this design may have been implicated in the creation of trophy cups came from a sermon on the Salvation Army Web site titled Captain Has Scored the Goal.

cover art

The “ox-eye” cup explanation was mentioned on Silver Cup, which references Ian Pickford’s book Starting to Collect Antique Silver.