The insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati is the most recognized emblem of the organization, having been made in some forty different versions over more than two hundred years and reproduced on goods ranging from fine Chinese export porcelain to common tobacco cards. Known as the Eagle, the Society’s insignia celebrates the achievement of American independence and the commitment of those who have worn it to the memory of the Revolution. The history of the Society of the Cincinnati Eagle covers more than two hundred years, from its creation in the 1780s through the explosion of variations in the nineteenth century, to the attempt to standardize the Eagle in the twentieth century and the celebration of its different forms today. The more than seventy historical examples of the Eagle in the Society's museum collections—the largest collection of the Society insignia in the world—help to reveal and document this history.
Typically made of gold with enamel decorations, the Society’s insignia is a double-sided medal in the shape of an American bald eagle bearing depictions of the organization’s namesake, the ancient Roman hero Cincinnatus. With its downturned wings and olive branches in its talons, the Society Eagle emphasizes the founding of a peaceful American republic and the return of its soldiers to their civilian lives.
The Eagle was designed in 1783 by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, a French-born artist who became an officer in the Continental Army and an original member of the Society. The first Eagles were made under L’Enfant’s direction in early 1784 in Paris, as he considered French craftsmen to be the only ones in the world skilled enough to produce the fine gold-and-enamel medals. L’Enfant contracted with Nicolas Jean Francastel and Claude Jean Autran Duval to make these first 225 Eagles, which were distributed to both American and French members. Francastel and Duval also made the Diamond Eagle, a jewel-encrusted insignia that French naval officers commissioned for George Washington in 1784 and that became the badge of office of the Society’s president general.
American craftsmen soon began making their own versions of the Society insignia, with Jeremiah Andrews of Philadelphia producing the first American-made Eagle in December 1784. Andrews and each craftsman who followed him in making the Eagle introduced their own variations, techniques, and preferences—resulting in more than forty different versions of L’Enfant’s original design, varying in size, metal, and decoration. By the early nineteenth century, silversmiths in Boston and New York City were also making versions of the Society insignia. Among the first constituent societies to commission its own Eagle type was the Rhode Island Society, which, in 1821, paid for thirty-two insignias made by a Philadelphia silversmith thought to be Thomas Fletcher of the renowned firm Fletcher and Gardiner. Most of these finely made Eagles were silver gilt; just two were solid gold. For the first time in the insignia’s history, this batch of Eagles was left bare without enamel decorations.
Variety characterized the Society’s insignia in the nineteenth century, when more than a dozen different types were created by at least eight manufacturers, filling commissions both from constituent societies and individual members. The Society began to turn back to French manufacturers for its Eagles in the mid-nineteenth century—especially for miniature versions of the insignia, a European-inspired tradition introduced in the Society by the 1880s. By 1900, several different French designs were being advertised to American members and sold through firms like Tiffany & Company. The heyday of the Eagle’s manufacture came in the late nineteenth century, when eminent firms like Tiffany and Company and Bailey Banks & Biddle created artistic yet precise examples of the Eagle to meet the demand from a rapidly growing membership. These insignias include the expressive New York Eagle of 1870, the elegant Rhode Island Eagle of 1885, the refined Connecticut Eagle of 1908, and the imposing Delaware Eagle of 1920.
Society leaders emerged from the nineteenth century with the hope of standardizing both the Eagle insignia and its ribbon, which some members thought suffered from a noticeable “want of uniformity.” During the Triennial Meeting of 1890, a committee consisting of the president general, secretary general, and treasurer general was formed to “fix upon a die as a standard for the eagle of the Order.” It took until 1902 for them to choose a design—one submitted by Bailey Banks & Biddle of Philadelphia, which was adopted at the Triennial Meeting that year. The standard Eagle and its miniature introduced a new pattern for the insignia, featuring a more naturalistic head, pointed wings, and a spiral suspension loop.
Virginia Society member Heth Lorton was among those members who advocated for a standardized Eagle. “What is needed in the Cincinnati Society to-day is uniformity,” he declared in an address to a Virginia Society meeting in December 1905. But he did not approve of the Bailey Banks & Biddle Eagle, as it was “not in accordance with the design of Major L’Enfant,” which Lorton mistakenly argued had been prescribed by the Institution. He campaigned against constituent societies creating their own Eagle types “according to their own ideas on the subject” and for the return to the L’Enfant design as the sole version of the insignia. Yet, in 1906, the Virginia Society—with Lorton as its secretary—commissioned its first Eagle, which strayed even farther from L’Enfant’s original design. Made by Alva Nelson of New York, these robust gold Eagles cost $40 each—one of the most expensive Eagles for sale at the time. Lorton owned a Virginia Eagle, along with a Rhode Island Eagle made by Tiffany & Company around 1890 and a miniature French Eagle also made in the late nineteenth century—all of which are preserved in the Society’s collections. By World War I, eight of the thirteen active constituent societies had commissioned their own Eagle. (The French Society was not revived until the 1920s.) Despite the 1902 Triennial Meeting’s resolutions that all Eagles be purchased through the assistant treasurer general and that each member only purchase one Eagle, the Society’s attempt to use a single standardized insignia had failed. But what resulted was a colorful array of variations that brought identity and pride to individual constituent societies.
The Society returned to the original L’Enfant Eagle for inspiration in the mid-twentieth century with the creation of what is known as the Tilghman Eagle. The twentieth-century Tilghman Eagle was modeled after the insignia made in Paris in 1784 and first owned by original Maryland Society member Tench Tilghman (1744-1786)—which was acquired for the Society’s collections in 1953. While the Society’s leaders preferred that members wear a gold Eagle, they authorized the creation of silver gilt Eagles from the Paris firm Arthus Bertrand for those members who could not afford the much costlier solid gold Eagles. Vice President General Edgar Erskine Hume, who recommended the silver gilt Eagles, had returned from France with fifty of them by December 1947.
Today, about half a dozen Eagle types are made and sold to Society of the Cincinnati members, continuing the long tradition of the Society's Eagle insignia.