Skip to main content

Is that foul-looking fowl really an eagle?

Next year, when the state quarter program ends, the plan is for the quarter’s reverse to revert to showing an eagle, as it had prior to 1999. That’s not a bad thing. Though Benjamin Franklin argued for adopting the turkey as the national bird (he thought the bald eagle was of “bad moral character”), an eagle has appeared on most U.S. silver and gold coins since the opening of the U.S. Mint in 1792.


This national symbol, however, has not always been shown at its best—at least not according to would-be art critics of the past. Take for example the scrawny creature on the back of the half disme in 1792 or the underfed bird on the 1794 dollar. Both of these birds ruffled some feathers.

But they were not alone.

When the Flying Eagle cent was released, in the 1850s, some termed it the “buzzard” cent.

In the 1920s, the eagle on the back of the Standing Liberty quarter was shamed in a press dispatch out of New York that complained that it faced the wrong way, which signified cowardice. The fact that it was winging across the coin didn't help. That, according to the dispatch, symbolized speed, meaning it was: “A coward and a fast running one.”


Adolph Weinman’s eagle on the half dollar, released in 1916, also raised a flap. An ornithologist claimed Weinman had made the bird look like it was “wearing overalls and marching through tar.”


A Chicago newspaper thought the eagle on the back of the Peace dollar looked like a tom turkey. (Franklin would have been proud.)

Some of the criticisms were fair. Others were not.

If I had to criticize one eagle on a U.S. coin, my choice would be the bizarre-looking creature on the 1936 Bridgeport commemorative half dollar. It’s definitely modernistic in design. But it hardly looks like an eagle.

For some reason, it has always reminded me of a whale with its mouth wide open. Of course, you have to ignore the legs. Commemorative authority Anthony Swiatek has noted that, if you turn the coin upside down, the eagle looks like a shark. Again, the legs are a problem.


But let's talk turkey (or in this case, whale- or shark-like eagle). Either way, that’s one foul fowl.