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The Flipside with Robert R. Van Ryzin

Is That Foul-Looking Fowl Really an Eagle?
December 03, 2007



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.

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About the Author
Robert R. Van Ryzin has been a coin collector for 30 years. He has served as editor of Krause Publications Coins and Coin Prices magazines since 1994. He joined the firm in 1986 after obtaining a master of fine arts degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Prior to becoming a magazine editor, he worked on World Coin News as a staff member and later served as managing editor of Numismatic News. Van Ryzin, whose specialty is U.S. coinage history, is also the award-winning author of the book Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection (Krause Publications, 2001), as well as two earlier titles, Twisted Tails: Sifted Fact, Fantasy and Fiction from U.S. Coin History (Krause Publications, 1995) and Striking Impressions: A Visual Guide to Collecting U.S. Coins (Krause Publications, 1992).

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