How are medals “used?” A question often asked by clients inquiring about a medal award program for the first time. The answer is “They don’t have to be utilitarian. They are miniature works of art that symbolize the recognition an organization has chosen to bestow on a deserving individual.”
“It’s like a painting you put on a wall. Most often a medal is in a case the recipient can open and display as on his mantle, or closed and put in a safe deposit box. It is that valuable to the recipient. A medal is a permanent, artistic, documentary evidence of that person’s achievement. He will venerate it for his lifetime – it should be the highest quality and the most artistic the bestowing organization can afford.”
That statement should be embedded in every medallic art salesman’s repertoire. He will use it often.
He should also embed in his mind the most important maxim in the recognition world:
Give a person a medal, give an organization a plaque.
Medals are viewed close up and personal. Plaques are viewed on a wall, to be seen by many. Unfortunately, this rule has been so neglected over the years – often by organizations facing an award program that is new to them — that the form of the award has become indistinct. They are not aware of the subtle qualities and applications of each form.
Case in point. The Waterbury, Connecticut newspaper, the Republican-American, in 1936 won the Putlizer Gold Medal for a series of articles on labor strife in that town. What does a newspaper do with a medal? It usually resides in the Publisher’s office until he realizes the inherent value of a gold medal and consigns it to a safe-deposit box, where it resides, unseen, for years.
How much better would it have been as a plaque to be placed on a trophy wall, perhaps with other awards won along the way by that organization.
But the enterprising Waterbury publisher ordered Medallic Art Company to make oversize relief plaques. That’s exactly what it did from the artist’s original patterns, making exact replicas of their gold medal cast as galvano reliefs and given a permanent patina finish like the bronze work of art that it is.
The publisher had the galvano reliefs mounted on the wall of the building’s vestibule where everyone entering the building would see them. That’s how a medal should be displayed by an organization!
The scope of award medals is so large that this form alone occupies the major production of Medallic Art Company. There are two types of organizations that dispense the greatest number of award medals – non profit or trade organizations and educational organizations, colleges and universities.
Medals are bestowed to individuals to recognize some activity the organizations desires to encourage. It is a trait familiar to every mother. You encourage good behavior in children and punish bad behavior. Bestowing medals is a form of encouraging good, or outstanding, or exceptional behavior.
In America, colonists recognized this trait early on. Americans bestowed Indian Peace Medals – silver oval medals with the Great White Father George Washington’s portrait – to Indian chiefs to instill peaceful coexistence with white settlers.
This became so popular and so widespread, that medals of a lesser size were required for chiefs of lesser status. Big chiefs got the biggest medals. Ultimately the U.S. Mint was required to strike medals in three sizes to accommodate all the tribal chiefs.
Early American award medals. Our country’s first award medals were called a Premium. The word, first used in England in 1601, originally meant a reward or prize (before it took on monetary or insurance meanings). It’s an obscure term today.
It was thought the British would have been the first to apply the term to award medals, but the earliest known such medal is the Magellanic Award of the American Philosophical Society – named after Magellan the explorer and established in 1786 – it was originally called the Magellanic Premium.
Also medals established in both countries at the same time bear this out. Count von Rumford (an American-born scientist, Sir Benjamin Thompson, 1753-1814, a physicist who investigated heat and was knighted by George III) established in 1796 the Rumford Prize Medal in England at the Royal Society of London and the Rumford Premium in America at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
(The British medal did not bear the word “premium,” the American medal did until 1839. It was renamed when it was engraved by Moritz Furst to be struck at the U.S. Mint; its legend reads: RUMFORD MEDAL FOR DISCOVERIES IN LIGHT OR HEAT.)
Another medal bearing the name “premium” was the Scott Premium of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, established early 19th century but unused after mid-19th century. Few medal programs survive from this period until today and none retain the term “premium” in their name, hence the present obscurity of the term.
Prize medals are another form of award medals. Medallic items are also used as awards in a contest, race or game where there is competitive action and more than one contestant. (A medal awarded without competitive action to one recipient only is called a recognition.)
Bestowing a medal as a prize is as old as the Roman games, and has continued throughout the civilized world for thousands of years taking on other, often more gaudy forms, such as trophies, cups, bowls, sashes, belts and such.
Prize medals have earned a number of names, including: Victory Medal (first or most victorious), Grand Prix (chief prize), and others such as the Grand Prix de Paris (a horse race since 1863), and Grand Prix de Rome (a French government art prize to study in Rome).
While the Olympics have awarded Olympic medals since their modern inception in 1896 – and what is more vivid than the top three winners in Olympic games receiving medals on neck ribbons on three stair steps – these are at the top of the food chain.
The great proliferation of sporting events in the last century has led to a deterioration of the quality of sports awards medals. A trophy industry has arisen with such completion that current sports medals can be obtained for less than a dollar each.
Previous Medallic Art Company management eschewed this portion of the medal business. They felt this class of medals was beneath the dignity and integrity that MACO wished to maintain.
Medal rank. Money, certificates and privileges often accompany better award medals as prizes. Occasionally a number of prize medals are awarded at one time (as in a race, for first, second, third, etc. place). Several systems of medal rank have evolved; the most obvious are gold, silver and bronze, in that order. Recall the Olympic medals?
Others struck in select compositions are:
- bronze gilt
- white metal.
With two sizes of dies in three compositions:
- large gold
- small gold
- any vermeil
- large silver
- small silver
- any bronze
At the bottom of the list are satire medals struck in tin and lead in metal rank as the last place medal (struck in lead) and next to last (struck in tin).