Fishing lures have been around about as long as prehistoric humans have contrived ways to catch fish. The earliest, prehistoric lures were made of bone. China was the first civilization to make fishing lines (of silk, of course), to which they attached delicate bronze hooks.
One of the founding fathers of the nascent fishing-lure industry in the United States was the son of a furrier named Julio T. Buel of Whitehall, New York. Between 1852 and 1876, Buel won five patents for various stamped-metal "arrowhead" spinners and feathered "spoons," as they were called then and are known today. Some had tiny chambers that could be opened or closed to make the lure either a sinker or a floater.
Around the same time, a contemporary of Buel’s, fellow New Yorker Thomas H. Bate, produced a number of metal Serpentine Spinners. Bate’s single- and treble-hook spoons were similar in some respects to Buel’s except that Bate’s spoons often had a drop of brass in their centers to give the lure extra weight.
Riley Haskell of Ohio took a more realistic approach with his lures, which closely resembled minnows. Some were made of brass, others of copper, and the detail of Haskell’s minnows was so complete that his tiny metal fish often featured scales.
W.D. Chapman of Theresa, New York was another prominent late 19th-century producer of "trolling bait." While his early products had a lot in common with those produced by Buel, by the 1880s he was merging the Buel and Haskell styles to create lures such as the Kilby Brass Single. The nickel-plated, spiraling "Safe Deposit Minnows" of the 1890s are especially handsome examples of antique fishing lures.
The transition from fishing with metal to wood and other materials begins—by some accounts, anyway—in Michigan at the family home of James Heddon. Heddon came from a family of fisherman who had always made their own homemade lures—one fine example from about 1890 features four hooks on a broomstick body that has been painted to resemble a frog. A bottle cap works nicely for a head.
By 1902, Heddon and his sons, Charles and William, were making lures in their kitchen. The first of these were named after their hometown, Dowagiac. Some of these had sloped nose...
As Heddon grew and the 1920s dawned, the company produced lures with names like Tad Polly, Lucky 13, Basser, Luny Frog, Zaragossa, and Vamp (in Baby, Round Nose, Jointed, Musky, and Floating flavors), among others.
Another Michigan company from the same period was William Shakespeare. At the beginning of the 20th century, Shakespeare lures were somewhat abstract, composed of aluminum, acorn-shaped body sections that have an almost robot-like appearance.
Shakespeare was also an early champion of rubber lures, making life-like frogs that were painstakingly painted. Some minnows floated, others worked while submerged, and all were studded with nasty hooks (five trebles was not uncommon). In the 1920s and 1930s, Shakespeare also produced lures that resembled swimming mice, complete with tails.
Back in Ohio, Pflueger, which sometimes marketed its lures under the name Enterprise Manufacturing Company, was the other great 19th-century lure company. Its earliest minnow lures from 1899 had glass eyes, and some of its 1880s lures used luminous paint to help attract fish. Pflueger’s Kent Floaters were squat, acorn-shaped, and brilliantly colored; its Surprise Minnows featured deeply carved grins; and the O’Boy Minnows and Pal-O-Mine lures had metal mouths to catch and reflect light.
Creek Chub Bait Co. and South Bend Bait Co. were Indiana’s contributions to the world of antique and vintage fishing lures. In 1906, three fisherman friends founded Creek Chub to produce just one lure, the Wiggler. Other Creek Chub lures wagged their tails or flopped at their joints. The company also made lures that looked like bugs, as well as minnows that floated upside down to suggest they were injured and, thus, easy pickings.
South Bend’s first minnow lures used propellers supplied by Shakespeare. The hooks of its lures were secured to screw eyes set into deep aluminum cups, which gave South Bend lures a fancy, finished appearance. One of its most popular lures was the uniformly tapered, dual-propeller Surf-Oreno, which was produced from 1916 through the 1960s.