Collecting Symbols of Liberty

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, July, 2005


Carved wooded eagle, a ships' decoration Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctions.

Hardly had the ink dried on the newly signed Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, than artists, craftsmen and designers began using the new symbols of liberty in various ways. Even the American housewife, took whatever scraps were at hand to create quilts with stars and stripes and eagle motifs. Her husband often used the same symbols to decoratively carve humble objects such as bread boards and bowls.

These days, when you can find them, these objects can cost one hundred to thousands of dollars. Whether it is a small, plastic figure of the Statue of Liberty in a souvenir shop or a magnificent carved , folk art eagle , patriotic symbols have always had a special meaning for Americans. It has been a way to express patriotic fervor.

The earliest symbols were the flag, the Great Seal (an official coat of arms that depicts the ideals of the then young republic and the American eagle. Not until the late 19th century did they include the Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty figures.

 Various flags were used during the Revolutionary War, but on June 14, 1777, Congress adapted thirteen red and white stripes, one for each of the (then) states. In the upper left hand quadrant, were thirteen white stars, symbols of a new constellation. The design for the Great Seal wasn't formally accepted till the inauguration of George  Washington in 1787. The eagle was used as the symbol of supreme power, representing Congress. In one talon he held an olive branch, symbolizing peach; in the other a bundle of arrows representing war. A scroll with the motto E Pluribus Unum was held in his beak.    

Painted decorated antique trunk with various symbols of liberty. Photo courtesy James Julia Auctions

From the War of 1812, to the Civil War, patriotic symbols, especially the eagle and the portrait of George Washington, appeared on glass (from whiskey flasks to plates) and wallpaper. Carved eagle finials topped bookcases, mirrors and crested the rails of sofas and clocks. CLUES: Among the most prized examples (and the most expensive) of American furniture, are those using eagles as elegant inlays on tables, chairs, desks and boxes. The inlays were usually made of satinwood, maple or mahogany. When combined with stars they showed the number of states at that particular time. This helps to date a piece. The brasses on Federal furniture inevitably featured eagle motifs. Fakers have been busy for many years adding patriot symbol inlays to plain furniture to get a better price. Those inlays have long been available in woodworking shops.

Another popular item that has been reproduced is the glass cup plate. It was originally made in the mid 19th century, with the pressed American eagle design, by the Boston Sandwiched Company. The authentic cup plates can sell for several hundred dollars. The 1920s and later reproductions can be identified by "ringing" the peace with your finger. If you hear a dull thud, you have a reprod.

Rag boxes at garage and house sales are the source of patriotic motif textiles. Don't worry if they are falling apart. All you need is a section large enough to preserve behind glass.

Many times when a hand-woven coverlet had turned into a ragged remnant, the owner saved the corner with the signature and patriotic symbol. That's all you need. Many times were made to commemorate the Declaration of Independence anniversary during the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. Liberty Bell coin banks are among the least    expensive.

What has come to be known as Centennial furniture, was made in the Federal style and often featured eagle carving. Prices just keep going up, as do the early 20th century Wallace Nutting reproductions.

I was one of the many people who collected Bicentennial items in 1976. I utilized the talents of a local (Wilmette, Illinois) glass engraver to depict various scenes dealing with the American Revolution, on a set of goblets. They are a prized, family heirloom. With liberty such a precious commodity these days the drawings and items made by adults and children , for even the Bicentennial, no matter how humble, can become the keepsakes and collectible patriotic symbols for future generations.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at

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