not what you think. I don’t mean
the ten-dollar coin. I mean the bird;
yes, the bald eagle, our national bird.
It is the only eagle that is unique to
North America; its scientific name (Haliaeetus
leucocephalus) indicates a sea eagle with
a white head. In this case “bald”
means “white” not hairless.
Bald eagles are found throughout North
America from Mexico to Canada. They flourish
here because of the salmon, which are
an important part of their diet. No longer
considered an endangered species, the
bald eagle is still protected by the Migratory
Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden
Eagle Protection Act.
Our nation’s coinage,
especially our gold coinage, has tried
to depict this magnificent bird as the
emblem of the United States because of
its long life, strength and majestic looks.
The first eagle portrayed
on a gold coin was the five-dollar half
eagle of 1795. It was a pathetic, scrawny
thing standing on an olive branch, with
out of proportion wings outstretched,
holding a wreath in its mouth. The same
bird was used on the ten-dollar coin for
year, in 1796, a heraldic $2.50 coin was
issued. The quarter eagle showed an upright
heraldic eagle with stars and clouds above
and the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM on a ribbon
across its neck. Robert Scot, who was
the first Engraver at the Mint, made a
significant error in the design of this
coin. He placed the arrows in the eagle’s
right talon, when they should have been
in the left one. This error in heraldry
shows extreme militarism, something that
a young country probably did not want
or should not have wanted to signify.
Despite this problem, the same reverse
design was used for the half-eagle and
eagle coins until 1807 for the two lower
denominations and 1804 for the ten-dollar
coin. (Silver coins from half-dimes to
dollars also used a similar reverse.)
In 1808 John
Reich corrected Scot’s error with
a new heraldic eagle for the $2.50 coin.
Even Robert Scot got into the act and
designed a new capped head and reverse
quarter eagle with the correct heraldry.
The reverse remained substantially the
same even with Christian Gobrecht’s
Coronet Head design. The essential difference
is that the motto on the ribbon above
the eagle was now omitted. Similarly,
the half eagle went from the Capped Draped
Bust to the Capped Head to the Classic
Head, and finally the Coronet motif. During
this time the E PLURIBUS UNUM was dropped
and, in 1866, IN GOD WE TRUST was added.
coin went through fewer design changes.
From Scot’s large eagle it went
to Gobrecht’s coronet design. Like
the half-eagle, in 1866 the motto was
added. The double eagle had three design
changes during this period of time. James
Barton Longacre’s design was issued
from 1850 to 1866. It shows a large heraldic
eagle with two ribbons on it sides and
an oval of stars with rays above. It added
the motto in 1866, and its denomination
changed from TWENTY D. to TWENTY DOLLARS
For me the
modern era began with the designs of Augusts
Saint-Gaudens and Bela Lyon Pratt. Saint-Gaudens’
standing eagle on the ten-dollar coin
is a magnificent rendition. It is reminiscent
of the coinage of the ancients and captures
the spirit of courage, strength, and majesty
that the Founding Fathers were looking
for in our national symbol.
on the twenty-dollar coin, we see a striking
representation of an eagle in flight.
What could be more majestic as it flies
over the sun’s rays?
Both of these
sensational designs are available in high
and regular relief. Pratt’s eagle
on the $2.50 coin and the five-dollar
piece, like Saint-Gaudens’, presents
a standing eagle; however, the entire
design for both denominations is incuse.
These coins have a completely different
look from all that preceded them.
it be interesting to put together a type
set of these eagles, from the scrawny,
pathetic early edition to Saint-Gaudens’
magnificent presentation? Counting all
denominations and designs the type set
would consist of 25 coins.