This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The eagle is one of the most magnificent birds found in nature. Large and bold, with a hooked beak and fierce-looking eyes, the eagle has long been a symbol of power, majesty and beauty.
Bald eagles, found in different parts of the United States, became the national symbol in 1782. Many renderings of this bird can be found on coins, eagles in varying stands, flying, perched or in fanciful pose.
An eagle can be seen on the Massachusetts cent of 1787, holding arrows. The Excelsior pieces of the same year show an eagle perched on a globe. Washington pieces show an eagle with a shield on its breast, holding arrows and an olive branch. Variations on this pose have been used throughout the years, and can still be seen on the Presidential seal. Perhaps such a pose is not known in nature, but is familiar to numismatists and those who appreciate artistic design.
Coins of 1792 show eagles on the reverse; these eagles do not appear to be especially large or fierce. The bird on the reverse of the half disme looks more like a fledgling, a young bird to represent the new country. The bird appears to be flying out of its nest. The eagle on the disme looks more in a hovering position than flying.
Skinny, small eagles are seen on early federal coinage. The eagle on the first gold issues of 1795 holds a wreath in its mouth, while the famous small eagle on silver coins sits on a cloud. The gold $10 coin was known as an eagle, with $5 coins called half eagles – another tribute to the great bird.
The eagle on the Flowing Hair silver coins appears quite scrawny. The heraldic eagle appeared in 1795. The larger eagle holds a ribbon in its mouth and holds arrows and an olive branch in its talons; a shield is on the bird’s breast. Later Capped Bust silver coins show a perched eagle, its head turned upward, a shield on its breast. Seated Liberty silver coinage, minted for over 50 years, shows a similar eagle on the reverse.
A real bald eagle served as the Philadelphia Mint’s unofficial mascot for many years. Peter the eagle, as he was named, made a habit of visiting the Mint and would watch the goings-on. The Mint employees adopted the bird as a pet, and would feed it. After Peter died catching his wing in machinery, the bird was mounted, and still stands guard at the Mint.
Peter also served as a model for some famous United States coins. The Gobrecht silver dollar patterns of 1836-1838 show a lovely flying eagle on the reverse; Peter was probably the model. The first small-sized cents of 1856, the Flying Eagle cents, show a similar eagle. Many patterns exist, showing the eagle with angular wings, curved wings, large and small sized.
Not until 1873, and the Coinage Act of that year, was the law established that gold and larger silver coins bear “the figure of an eagle or representation thereof.”
Barber silver quarters and half dollars, first minted in 1892, show a heraldic eagle on the reverse, reminiscent of the one used on early silver coinage. The Standing Liberty quarter followed the Barber design in 1916, showing a flying eagle on the reverse. Nothing stylized or fancy about this bird; the proud eagle, shown in flight, was perhaps the most realistic-looking eagle used on regular issue coinage up to that time. The Standing Liberty quarter is recognized as one of the most beautiful regular issue coins, and not only for the famous rendering of Miss Liberty on the obverse.
Washington quarters, first struck in 1932, show a perched eagle with its head apparently squashed by the motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” required to appear on U.S. coins. The original design, by Laura Gardin Fraser, shows a proud eagle unencumbered by mottoes or required elements. The original design was finally used on a $5 coin in 1999, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of George Washington. The gold coin does justice to the original design. The breast bone is prominent, and the feathers are quite pronounced, and almost seem to have some texture, something difficult to show on a coin.
The Walking Liberty half dollar, considered the most beautiful U.S. silver coin, features a bald eagle perched on a mountain. This bird shows a pose that a real eagle may take in the wild, wings slightly spread, looking to grab its prey. Another realistic eagle perched on a mount is seen on the Peace dollar. The eagle stands proudly and watches the sun rise.
Franklin half dollars show a small eagle on the reverse, to the right of the Liberty Bell. Some critics have claimed that the bird resembles a turkey more than a proud eagle – perhaps an appropriate remark, as Benjamin Franklin himself supposedly wanted the turkey to be America’s national bird.
Morgan silver dollars show a bald eagle on the reverse. The original 1878 coin featured an eagle with eight tail feathers; this was later corrected to show seven tail feathers. The anatomy of the eagle and its tail feathers had to be accurate, even though the pose by the eagle has probably never been seen in the wild. There are three distinct varieties of 1878 Morgan dollars involving the tail feathers, including a 7/8 feathers variety, and spaces to hold all three coins are found in albums.
“The Eagle has landed.” These words were spoken by the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969 upon landing on the moon. This event was commemorated on the Eisenhower dollar, struck from 1971-1978. The bald eagle is shown landing on the moon, bearing an olive branch in its talon, recalling the words on the plaque left on the moon: “We came in peace for all mankind.” This was a replica of the official insignia of the Apollo 11 moon mission. The design was later used on the Susan B. Anthony dollar reverse from 1979-1981 and 1999.
Sacagawea dollar coins of the early years show an eagle in flight, wings extended.
Gold coins of the early 20th century show bald eagles perched proudly. The bird on the $10 piece, aptly called a gold eagle, especially looks tall and impressive, as befitting a bird of prey. This coin was designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens; a similar eagle is seen on his Theodore Roosevelt medal.
Many commemorative coins show one or more bald eagles. The Panama-Pacific half dollar shows an eagle perched on a shield, while the Panama-Pacific quarter eagle shows a more defiant eagle. Some half dollars commemorating statehood show an eagle as part of the state’s seal, such as Alabama and Illinois. The Bridgeport half dollar features a modernistic eagle on the reverse, a very interesting rendering of the national bird.
Modern commemoratives featuring the bald eagle include the 1991 Mount Rushmore gold half eagle, showing an eagle about to land on the monument. This eagle is one of the more realistic birds shown on coinage. The bird is shown to great advantage, with its wings spread, reaching upward to the edge of the coin, its talons ready to perch.
One impressive and meaningful treatment of the bald eagle is seen on the 1994 Prisoner of War Museum silver dollar. An eagle flies, with a broken chain on one foot, surrounded by barbed wire, and the words “Liberty” and “Freedom.”
United States gold bullion pieces, the American Eagles, were struck beginning in 1986. The reverse shows a family of eagles. A male flies to its nest, to a female with two baby eagles, or eaglets.
The bald eagle was honored in 2008 with its own commemorative. Half dollars, silver dollars, and gold $5 pieces were minted showing different poses of the bald eagle. The half dollar shows two eaglets, in their nest, snuggled up to an egg.
The obverse shows Challenger, a famous bald eagle. This bird was probably the first real model for a coin since Peter, over 150 years before. Challenger was an eaglet thrown from his nest during a storm in Louisiana in 1991. The bird was cared for by humans, to the extent that this eagle cannot be released in the wild. Named for the lost space crew of 1986, Challenger has made many personal appearances over the years, including a number of sporting events.
The American Eagle Foundation made an appearance at the World’s Fair of Money in Baltimore in August 2008, bringing along a bald eagle (either Challenger or Mr. Lincoln) to publicize the bald eagle commemoratives. The great bird perched on its trainer’s arm, looked around the busy convention floor, and squawked.
The $5 coin shows two eagles on a branch; one appears to have just landed. Bald eagles in the wild often sit perched in trees, looking for their prey.
Modern platinum American Eagles of 1998-2002 show attractive reverse designs, showing a bald eagle flying over different areas of the country. The 2002 piece shows a bald eagle fishing in the Northwest, grabbing a fish out of water, as bald eagles often do in nature.
Quite a few pattern coins show eagles in different poses. The Schoolgirl pattern dollar, one of the most popular, shows a defiant eagle on the reverse. The eagle stands proudly, extending its wings, its beak open, taking a step forward. The viewer can almost hear the bird squawk.
The reverse of the “Shield Earring” design shows an eagle not quite as fierce as on the Schoolgirl dollar, but its head is held high, its wings uplifted, as if the bird is about to fly away. This eagle is also a bit more artistically posed, with curved wings and a smooth appearance. The eagle with shield on the Amazonian patterns stands proudly, holding a bundle of arrows. Different eagles in different poses are seen on other patterns. Many of the eagles are shown bearing a shield, holding arrows or an olive branch, used as a powerful symbol and not meant to be shown realistically.
The bald eagle, a symbol of America for over 200 years, still can be seen on U.S. coins, and will be seen for many years to come. Whether the great bird is shown perched, flying, realistically or more artistically, the beautiful bald eagle is a proud addition to any coin.
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