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What's Up Magazine

Eagle Antiques

Nov 09, 2010 06:03PM ● By Anonymous

The eagle symbol was first officially used in the earliest American colonies to decorate brass tokens issued as New York coinage sometime between 1664 and 1710. George Washington chose the eagle as the motif for his uniform buttons during the Revolutionary War. Washington was inaugurated as president in 1789 in New York City under the pediment of Federal Hall, which was adorned by a large eagle. During his subsequent tour of the first 12 states, he was greeted with images of eagles in the form of fans, lapel pins, and eagle tracings on windowpanes.
Fifty-nine species of eagles exist worldwide and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. In England, our mother country, the eagle was popularly used as a decorative motif. An early Georgian table is named the “eagle console table.” Elaborately carved and gilded, it consists of an oblong marble top placed over a carved frieze, supported by a spread eagle standing on a rock. Popularly used in drawing rooms, eagle console tables frequently came in pairs and were an important component relating to the symmetrical treatment of grand rooms designed for formal entertaining.
In 1782, the eagle officially became the principal component of the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal shows a Bald Eagle clutching an olive branch in one claw and a bundle of arrows in the other, while holding a scroll with the E Pluribus Unum motto in the beak. The noble bird was officially declared the National Emblem of the United States by the Second Continental Congress. Not all political statesmen of the time agreed with the choice. Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal to feature the wild turkey, while Thomas Jefferson favored a seal showing the Israelites fleeing from the bondage of the Pharaoh.


Once the eagle became the nation’s official symbol, its use proliferated. Carved and gilded eagles were attached as finials to both mirrors and clocks. Many brass eagles were imported from the continent and the Far East to be used in the manufacture of banjo clocks, a popular 19th century hanging wall clock shaped like a banjo . When used as part of an inlay design in furniture, it was frequently placed in an oval medallion. Often the eagle was depicted with streamers flowing from its beak and marks representing stars.

In France, when Napoleon rose to power in 1804, there was a revival of classic design that spread through Europe and North America. The furniture style that developed is termed “Empire.” There was a resurgence of interest in all things associated with the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Etruscans. As the eagle was a favorite symbol of power and strength, it was frequently used in the carved decorations of furniture and objects as a symbol of freedom from the Bourbon monarchy and the acceptance of classical ideals.
Some of the finest eagles to collect are those carved of wood. John Bellamy of Kittery, Maine, was a prolific sculptor during the late 1800s. His largest eagle creations were used to adorn ships as figureheads. Bellamy used one plank to carve the wings, body, and any decorative device, such as a shield or banner. A smaller block of wood was used for the neck and head. Expressive detailing and a strong, three-dimensional presence characterize Bellamy’s work.
When collecting carved eagles, it is important to first acquire a thorough knowledge of the various styles, as well as how to date both paint and wood. Carved wooden eagles are a worthwhile investment. But, as always, when large sums of money are involved, there are many forgeries.
A variety of decorative objects, large and small, feature eagles prominently as a part of the primary motif. These items vary from eagle weathervanes, to quilts with an appliquéd eagle, to brass buttons decorated with eagles and sewn on a military jacket.