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Right Face

July 2024
1min read

Dr. Gilbert Highet, long the noted Anthon Professor of Latin at Columbia University, recently wrote us, saying:

I was looking at some old furniture in East Hampton when I remembered something once told me by an American officer who heard me speak at West Point. … He said that you could always tell the date of a piece of nineteenth-century furniture if it had the American eagle on it, because if the country had been at war when the piece was made, the eagle was looking to the side in which it held the lightning bolts, and if we were at peace, it had its head turned to the side of the olive branch. Is there any truth to this?

Miss Sarah B. Sherrill of Antiques magazine was kind enough to check into this possibility of dating old furniture and found it was—perhaps unfortunately for buffs—a myth. Which way the eagle faced, she discovered, “depended on the whim of the artist.” Indeed, artists, we also ascertained, not only faced their eagles to the left or right without a waror-peace theory in mind, but also exchanged the lightning bolts and olive branch from one claw to another for no discernible reason. Until President Harry S. Truman decreed otherwise in 1945, the President’s seal, coat of arms, and flag carried the eagle facing the bolts in its left talon. This was changed by executive order so that the eagle looks to its right—the position of honor in heraldry. It thus now faces the talon holding the olive branch. The eagle on our cover, a wood carving dated 1840, is hence wrong : it has no olive branch at all.

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