Silver presentation trowels – sometimes called ceremonial trowels – are tools that are used to commemorate the construction of a building. These presentation pieces are recorded to have emerged in Great Britain in the 18th Century, with widespread use occurring by the later 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Presentation trowels were used as an integral part of Foundation Stone Ceremonies. In these ceremonies, the first stone set in the masonry foundation – the foundation stone or sometimes referred to as the cornerstone – of a prominent building was placed in the presence of a crowd to celebrate the construction of the building. The presentation trowel was used to lay the Foundation Stone, and both featured etchings of the names of prominent people involved in the construction of the building, such as the Lord or Mayor of the area. Celebrating construction of a new building with ceremonial trowels has been done for hundreds of years across many cultures. Foundation ceremonies were very popular, with thousands of people attending to watch the laying of the foundation stone.
The foundation stone was inscribed with the construction dates of the building, as well as the names of relevant people in the build. As the foundation stone was the first stone to be laid, its inscriptions were no longer visible once the building was complete. For this reason, a replica of the foundation stone was often made, with the same details engraved into it. This replica was placed somewhere that it could be seen by the public to memorialise the construction.
Early examples of foundation ceremonies in Britain date back to the seventeenth century, notably the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1675, though there is no surviving evidence that a ceremonial trowel was used at the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Presentation trowels were used for many variations of building, and weren’t limited to the most significant buildings. The rapid urbanisation that took place throughout Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lead to the widespread use of ceremonial trowels. Numerous churches and civic buildings were constructed in this time, which influenced the increase in the use of presentation trowels.
Presentation trowels also acted as a useful tool for architects. Industrial revolution in the late 18th century led to a rapid growth of construction, which in turn quickened the development and demand for architects. Commercialised architecture careers led to an increase in presentation trowels as a form of self-promotion. Architects would encourage foundation ceremonies, and then acquire presentation trowels with their names on them.
Records show that presentation trowels were definitely used in the early and mid-18th century, but there is no surviving image of one from this period. The earliest surviving trowels from Britain have been dated back to the 1820s.
After the Second World War, the popularity of presentation trowels decreased, and they fell out of use.