To a wide-eyed boy, the gigantic neon eagle on Market Street just west of 11th seemed fierce—and fun. In fading evening light, oblivious commuters on the sidewalk below went about their business, seemingly unaware as the eagle glowed and flapped. As I sat in the passenger seat of my father’s Ford station wagon idling at the stoplight, I knew one thing: I would forever look forward to seeing the Market Street eagle again.
Eagles were part of our lives in the patriotic mid-century. I had seen plenty of them—cast on aluminum screen doors in my parents’ West Oak Lane rowhouse neighborhood, embroidered on quilts, stitched on flags, printed on labels of the beer cans my father popped open on hot summer days. I had seen how sign makers borrowed wings from eagles to keep horses aloft (Mobilgas) and rendered them in neon at Flying A Service stations. Wings were always spread, but but not nearly so dramatically or dynamically as the Market Street eagle. This glowing creature could out not only catch a PTC bus, it could devour it, as well.
Other cities had their neon eagles. In 1950, the Artkraft-Strauss Sign Corporation of New York filmed the real thing in flight and created a series of giant neon facsimiles for Anheuser-Busch breweries. Before long, Anheuser-Busch mounted one on the Brill Building in Manhattan, two blocks from Times Square. Breweries in Newark, Saint Louis, New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles soon had their own, which made sense: Anheuser-Busch had adopted the eagle for a logo in the 1870s. But even this was hardly an original idea. The first barrels of Yeungling rolled out of their Eagle Brewery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania back in 1829, and the eagle had been its logo ever since. Brewers weren’t the only ones who saw something special in eagles. Newspaper publishers liked them. So would fire companies, banks, sports teams, musical groups and pencil manufacturers, among others.
The eagle is universally admired as patriotic, independent, precise and powerful. Americans (except Benjamin Franklin) have officially liked the eagle since 1782. Franklin famously preferred the Wild Turkey for the Great Seal of the United States, although he was also partial to the rattlesnake. But the eagle v. turkey v. snake debate was short lived. Charles Thomson’s design (illustrated here) for the Great Seal had little serious opposition and soon, the eagle forever became something for our collective awe, appreciation, adaptation, and imitation—so much as humans might be able.
And they would try. Toward the end of World War One, photographers Arthur Mole and John Thomas arranged 12,500 military officers, nurses and others stationed at Camp Gordon outside Atlanta in a unique patriotic formation—a giant version of the Great Seal, eagle feathers delineated by the strategic placement of contrasting uniforms.
When and where, exactly, did the eagle first fly off the page and onto the streets, military bases, breweries and pencil factories of America? That took only took a few short years after the eagle’s adoption. In the 1790s, when Philadelphia was temporarily the nation’s Capital, Alexander Hamilton got his plan approved for a federal Treasury. And without an architect to help guide the way (Benjamin Henry Latrobe wouldn’t arrive until the Spring of 1796), Samuel Blodgett, Jr. supplied a design. With one eye on the Royal Exchange back in Dublin (now Dublin City Hall) the newly-minted Americans put up their First Bank, also the first of many marble facades designed to project a sense of pride and security for the citizenry.
What would occupy the First Bank’s triangular pediment, the most symbolic space over the entrance of this most symbolic building? An eagle, of course. Even better, a riff on the Great Seal, with all of its correct attributes: an eagle with a fist full of arrows, a shield with thirteen stars and stripes, an olive branch, and, since the building was intended to support national well being—a lavishly stocked cornucopia. Clodius LeGrand, a woodcarver and stonecutter newly-arrived from France is thought to be responsible for the sculpture, which is considered “an elaborate masterpiece.”
Critics raved, calling it “the first finished building of any consequence wherein taste and knowledge has been displayed in this country.” But Latrobe, who meant to upgrade the American taste for such things, remained unimpressed. The white marble’s “bluish and yellowish veins” bothered him, as did the heights of the blocks and their off-level joints. As for detailed carvings and LeGrand’s eagle, Latrobe simply wrote: “the sculpture is not good.” Within a few years, Latrobe had won over Philadelphia, as well as the new District of Columbia, and LeGrand left for Santo Domingo—never to be heard from again.
Thanks to LeGrand, the American eagle had made its way from the new nation’s seals and coins to find a perch, for the first time, on the streets of America.