While vacationing in upstate New York last summer, I was privileged to see a bald eagle soaring above the Erie Canal. Today, it is a thrill to spot a wild bald eagle, a threatened and celebrated animal in the United States. The image of the eagle, however, is everywhere: on the face of the quarter in your pocket, in the logo of a popular clothing brand, and most prominently, as the central feature in the official great seal of the United States of America.
After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to design a national seal for the United States. After six years of disagreements about the design, an official seal was finally adopted in 1782 that featured a bald eagle holding thirteen arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other. Despite Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the turkey – he called the eagle a “bird of bad moral character” and argued that the turkey’s courage better matched the American spirit – the bald eagle became a national symbol second only to Old Glory. (An excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s letter to his daughter in which he expresses his opinion on the eagle and the turkey can be found in this article by Jimmy Stamp.)
Why the bald eagle? Through their association with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter, eagles have historically denoted authority. Their imposing wingspan, longevity, and strength lend eagles an air of power, and their solitary lifestyle and tendency to nest in tall treetops or on clifftops bespeak independence and self-sufficiency. Also, early Americans saw the predatory nature of the eagle as a fitting representation of America’s rising military and economic power. Finally, one major reason for the selection of the bald eagle as a symbol for America is the fact that, as Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence states in her article Symbol of a Nation: the Bald Eagle in American Culture, “of the fifty-eight species of eagles worldwide, the bald eagle is the only one virtually unique to North America.”
In 1783, the Treaty of Paris recognized the United States as a sovereign nation. From this point on, American decorative arts proudly displayed the bald eagle as a symbol of their hard-earned freedom. Eagles are featured prominently in early 19th-century American furniture, artwork, glass, and ceramics.
Surprisingly, even the Staffordshire potters in England produced ceramic wares displaying the new nation’s most popular patriotic symbols. Beautiful examples of such vessels in Winterthur’s collection can be viewed in the book Success to America: Creamware for the American Market. The authors note that “eagles, flags, and patriotic slogans were among the most popular emblems to appear on ceramics made specifically for the American market.” (page 232)
Winterthur’s museum collection includes many objects that display the American eagle and other patriotic symbols. As Arlene Palmer explains in Glass in Early America, Henry Francis du Pont was “drawn to objects that bespoke the nationalistic pride of Americans after the revolutionary war.” (page 23) The wineglass displayed at right is a perfect example.
The majestic eagle that perches atop the Custom House at Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SAMA) is a replica of the original wooden eagle that was carved in 1826 by Salem craftsman Joseph True. The original eagle was conserved in 2002 and is now displayed on the second floor of the Custom House. Although the eagle’s current appearance reflects the gilding that was applied in the 1870s, she was initially painted as a bald eagle, with a brown body and white head. See this State of the Park Report for more information on SAMA’s eagle and its conservation.
Part of a glass saltcellar with an eagle motif was excavated from the kitchen at Appomattox Manor, City Point, Virginia (a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield). Saltcellars, used for holding and dispensing salt, have been in use since Roman times and only passed out of fashion in the first half of the 20th century with the advent of free-flowing salt and salt shakers. While researching this piece during cataloging recently, NMSC determined that the saltcellar was produced by the Sandwich Glass Company in the first half of the 19th century. The New York Historical Society’s museum collection includes a similar saltcellar, which their website dates to ca. 1830-1840.
What pieces reflecting American pride and patriotism do you have in your museum collection? We’d love to hear from you! And of course, Happy Independence Day from us here at the the Northeast Museum Services Center!
Lawrence, E.A. “Symbol of a Nation: The Bald Eagle in American Culture.” Journal of American Culture13 (1990), pp. 63–69.
Liebster, Amy. “Eagles After the American Revolution”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eagl/hd_eagl.htm (June 2012)
Palmer, Arlene. Glass in Early America. Winterthur Museum, 1993.
Stamp, Jimmy. American Myths: Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal. Smithsonian.com, January 25, 2013. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/american-myths-benjamin-franklins-turkey-and-the-presidential-seal-6623414/?no-ist
Teitelman, S. Robert, Patricia A. Halfpenny, and Ronald W. Fuchs II. Success to America: Creamware for the American Market. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors Club, 2010.