History of Trophy, Medals & Awards
Medals and awards have been around since the beginning of civilization. The first detailed records on medals come from ancient Greece, where people were awarded all kinds of prizes for common things like military success or victory in a sporting event. But some of these medals were very special, given upon especially honorable acts or just to show appreciation. One of the most famous example of these is the Olympic (I) (VII) Medal, given in ancient Greece to honor participation in the games. At first, only bronze medals were awarded in sporting events. However by the fourth century B.C., silver and gold ones emerged, indicating that winning was becoming more important than participating. Although it seems like people always cared more about winning than anything else, medals were given to honor people even for losing. The winner received the real prizes, but everyone who participated was honored with a medal or prize.
The first awards that resemble the ones we know today came from China. Between 500 B.C. and A.D 500, china’s leaders awarded people with very ornate and beautiful objects called “Awards of Distinction” for deeds such as writing a good book, inventing something new or great bravery in battle. Later on during the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) the Chinese awarded medals to people who did important jobs such as making weapons or growing food crops. These medals were small and shaped like a spade or a shoe, and they had written on them what they were awarded for.
Medals were not only given to people, but also to cities and towns. The citizens of the town would nominate someone who they felt was deserving of such an honor (for example for building roads or bridges). Then a committee would vote on whether to give the award to that person. These awards were called “Decorations of Honor” and they were very ornate, as opposed to the first Chinese medals which were simple.
In Europe, as china had been before, medals were originally used as “Awards of Distinction”. The first medals around were very simple, and were often made of bronze or lead. They depicted the person they were given to and why they received it; for example a military campaign, or representing their country in an event such as the Olympics. While at first only rich people could afford to buy these medals, eventually states began giving them out to honor people. By the end of the 17th century it was common for medals to be given out in Europe, but while they could still honor people these awards were not considered public property.
The first documented time modern day medals were used as a way to show appreciation or honor was in Florence Italy between 1430 and 1433 A.D. However it wasn’t until 1783 that these awards were given out to the entire population of a town. In 1800’s Europe, medals were used to decorate just about anything. During this time period people would have their picture painted, then set into a medal that was made for that painting. This style of art became so popular during the 19th century they were even used to decorate dishes and furniture. Some of my favorite examples of this art are the ones made by Faberge in Russia. The openwork gold eggs he created for Czar Alexander III were decorated with medals that depicted different events in Russian history (they are really amazing, you can see them at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg Russia).
Medals were not only given to people and objects, but they were also used as a trading tool. For example some Native American tribes would give out hand crafted medals every time they made a trade with another tribe. This was an important way for them to keep track of who had traded with them in the past and how much they had given them in return. These medals were fairly simple, but some tribes would put more skill and time into them than others. Medals also served as a way of keeping records for colonists in the New World, who instead of writing down names used medals to mark their milestones during trade with other European nations.
Since then, the art of the medal has evolved and expanded. Today we have Olympic medals, which were first given out in 1904 at the St Louis Olympic games. These medals are made using different metals such as silver and gold, and they depict symbols of what country you are from or who is sponsoring the games (such as Nike). We also have commemorative medals that honor famous people or events, but because these medals are not given out as awards they do not contain any markings to show why someone was honored. Medals have also been used in advertising, such as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile which is decorated with a giant medal that shows an image of the company’s mascot (a little boy dressed like a hot dog). However more recently medals have been used as a way of showing how much you have donated to a charity.
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