At the height of the county’s quest for independence and freedom from foreign domination, America’s leaders selected the eagle as its national symbol.
Historians note that the American eagle was officially adopted in June of 1782 by an act of the Continental Congress. It was a suitable choice.
In writing suggestions earlier to the selection committee Philadelphia sculptor William Rush movingly endorsed the “elegant figure” of the eagle. Rush the artist visualized, “the American Eagle darting upon and destroying the vitals of tyranny, the shackles of despotism…and hurling them under the feet of the Genius of America.”
To be specific the nation’s choice was not just any eagle.
The founders, for example, ultimately rejected the idea of a traditional doubleheaded eagle that prior to that time had often been used as a heraldic representation. It was simply too much in the realm of old country royalty.
Neither would any single eagle serve the purpose. Eagles had been used as symbols before in the Colonies, but when it came to the Great Seal the choice centered on a particular native species the American Bald Eagle. The term ‘bald’ was a bit of a misnomer since the bird simply had white head and tail feathers rather than the full brown coloring of other eagles.
As officially adopted on the Great Seal the American eagle had outspread wings and clutched arrows in one claw while holding an olive branch in the other. It also had a crest with 13 stars representing the 13 then existing states.
Almost immediately, if not before, the American eagle appeared everywhere in the United States as a popular and powerful symbol. As the nation’s first president, George Washington, toured the states after his inauguration he was greeted at each stop by carved and painted American eagles.
It was carved on ship’s figureheads, scratched on powder horns, fashioned from all manner of folk art, added to flagpoles according to observations by author Katharine McClinton. Further it appeared on everything from hand-stitched quilts to shop signs. Throughout the so-called Federal period it was proudly displayed as an architectural motif and stood above doorways and on mantle pieces inside.
McClinton in The Complete Book of Small Antiques further describes, the American eagle carved and inlaid on furniture of the period, and mounted on clocks. Further it could be found, “embroidered with gold thread on bright silk.” A particular popular item during the War of 1812 in the states were cotton printed kerchiefs showing the eagle emblem in a sweeping design together with scenes of naval battles and portraits of Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
One especially striking example of fashionable eagle-adorned clocks was cast in bronze with gold gilding. The early 19th century shelf clock featured the American eagle clutching olive branches and a shield with the motto, E Pluribus Unum inscribed on it. Standing alongside of the eagle and the clock was George Washington. For all of this patriotic glory however, it had been crafted in France and noted in the United States.
“Such American symbols were added to everything from clocks to earthenware jugs made in Europe early in the 19th century in an attempt to appeal to the growing American market,” notes author Erwin Christensen. Writing in The Index of American Design Christensen adds, “when they appeared in this country, they found eager buyers.”
When France’s Marquis de Lafayette visited the United States in the I820s he found a great deal of glassware similarity bearing the American eagle. The glass flask, in particular, featured several different designs all starring the country’s own version of the eagle.
By the Erie Canal ceremonies of 1825 the American eagle emblem was wildly popular on folk art, imprints, and all manner of souvenirs. A water keg decorated with the painted eagle was used in dedication ceremonies and is now displayed by the New York Historical Society. Meanwhile there was an abundance at the time of eagle motifs on pressed-glass plates, salts, and cups. The Sandwich Glass Company was especially prolific with the eagle image offering in a wide range of glass that included blue, yellow, opalescent, as well as clear white.
The American eagle also appeared on a wealth of milk glass covered dishes, fire-fighting helmets and other related equipment, drinking glasses, wallpaper designs, and even carefully stitched coverlets.
The eagle appeared in furniture too. Sometimes a standing or soaring eagle adorned a delicate candle stand, chair or table. There was eagle-decorated pottery made in American locations such as Pennsylvania and Ohio and also in the Staffordshire region of England as well. A transfer decorated pitcher from Liverpool, England paid tribute to Washington in 1840 bearing the inscription, “Washington in Glory, America in Tears.” It also bore the American eagle and the seal of the United States. Beyond the pots and pitchers, there were also butter molds and mugs, and more.
By the middle of the 19th century the American eagle had made quite an impression as a weathervane on a vast number of rooftops around the country. Often copper or zinc, or combinations of both, most were of the spread wing variety. Often they appeared perched on global orbs or metal stands.
When the Civil War arrived in the 1860s the northern armies carried the American eagle off to battle, often in the form a brightly colored image on a drum. The eagle stood on various drums of that era. Smaller drums, usually carried by drummer boys around 12 years of age, typically bore an eagle with a shield and a sunburst beneath it. Larger drums used for parades and ceremonial marches were often even more lavishly decorated with the American eagle.
During the Civil War the eagle also frequently had a renewed patriotic role on decorated quilts. A cotton Civil War memorial quilt was made by Mary Ben Shawvan of Wisconsin for her soldier husband John Shawvan. When her husband was killed in the battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee, Mary was left a widow with six children and only a Civil War widow’s pension. Still the quilt with its spread wing eagle and shield among meandering flower vines and perching birds was impressive. Nearly a century and a half later the historic eagle-dominated quilt sold at a major east coast auction house.
During the second half of the 19th century the mighty American eagle was often the center of a wide range of carvings from signs and ship’s figure heads to small handheld objects.
One of the most famed eagle carvers of that era was John Hale Bellamy. An artist and sculptor of considerable note, Bellamy’s flourished in Massachusetts and later in New Hampshire. His shop boasted the ability to “service a single order for 100 eagles” and they could be accompanied by “emblematic frames and brackets” too. Bellamy advertised his talents at “house, ship, furniture, sign and frame carving…furnished at short notice.”
The grand eagles created by Bellamy were usually large and often embellished with all type of slogans from Don’t Give Up The Ship to simply Happy New Year. Typically the eagle and U.S. flag were decorated with red. white and blue paint. Among Bellamy’s most impressive eagle carvings was an 18-foot figurehead personally made for the U.S.S. Lancaster.
At the other end of the carved eagle scale was now memorialized folk artist Wilhelm Schimmel. At about the same time Bellamy was carving giant-sized eagles in New England, Schimmel was going from town to town in Pennsylvania carving small eagles and other animals in exchange for hand-outs or liquor. Decades later his pine eagles shaded in brown, black, red and yellow became highly sought as classic examples of late 19th century folk art. In 1890 “Old Schimmel” died in a Pennsylvania poorhouse, and a newspaper noted, “his only occupation was carving heads of animals out of wood, he was apparently a man of a very surly disposition.”
Today surviving American eagles once made by the transit Schimmel bring $15,000 to $25,000.
As late as the 1960s, antiques historian and author McClinton observed that the American eagle “is one of the most sought after collector’s items” in the country today. McClinton attributed the fascination in part to the nation’s history and the eagle’s personal symbolism for individuals.