Birds of a feather flock together. In this case, the cliché rings true, and Native Americans knew it. When the colonists first arrived in North America, they found that the natives were using mud, bulrushes, fowl carcasses, and other materials to create imitations of ducks and other fowl. These imitations attracted live birds, which the hunters would then kill or capture.
Native Americans had been successfully employing this practice for more than 1,000 years, so the colonists began to build on their techniques. Hunting had been rare among commoners in the Old World since most fields and pastures with game belonged to aristocrats, especially in England. Despite the novelty of hunting in the New World for the colonists, the word they eventually used to name their new lifelike lures—“decoys”—came from a Dutch word referring to the cages Old World hunters built to attract and tame wild birds.
By the mid-19th century, most decoys in the New World were made out of wood rather than mud, and commercial and sport hunters alike used them to help lure their prey. Although th...
A carver would craft the general shape of the decoy’s body using a hatchet and then fine-tune it with a long drawknife. He or she—a few carvers enlisted the help of their wives—would create the head separately from a smaller block of wood using an axe, rather than a hatchet; then, the carver would whittle the head down with a jackknife and attach it to the body using nails or long spikes.
Finally, the finished decoy would be sanded, primed, and painted in natural colors to lure fowl effectively. By the time of the Civil War, this technique had matured almost to an art form.
Commercial hunters often owned hundreds of decoys, which they would set out in large numbers to attract as many birds as possible. As sport hunting became more prominent among the wealthy, some carvers began making fewer decoys but of higher quality for this new clientele. Sport hunters wanted decoys that were beautiful, not just useful. Eventually, some carvers began making decoys for purely decorative reasons.
Decoys varied in style from region to region, as the environment and species of a given area dictated their design. Decoys in Maine, for example, were often tougher and more rugged in order to withstand the rough waters of the area.
Even within regions, decoys could take any one of a number of designs. Some were built to float, and these were generally intended to attract large fowl like ducks and geese. Within this group, some were hollowed out so they would be more buoyant, while others were solid.
Another group of decoys included the stationary “stickups,” which stood on legs in the ground. Still others were two-dimensional profiles that were also designed as stickups. Some of these stickups were nearly four feet tall; floating decoys could be just as long.
Although the carvers who made these decoys were considered craftsmen at the time, decoys have become collectible examples of folk art. The reasons for this change in perception range from the quality of the decoys to events that helped make them scarce.
By 1920, for example, Congress had passed the North American Wildlife Act and North American Migratory Bird Act, which limited hunting and banned commercial hunting of most species altogether. Overnight, the demand for decoys all but disappeared—commercial hunters had been by far the biggest decoy customers.
Decoys became even scarcer in the 1950s and 1960s when mass-produced plastic decoys became available. Because the plastic decoys were cheaper and lighter than wooden decoys (an important consideration when carrying many in a small boat), many hunters discarded or even burned their wooden decoys, which at the time seemed worthless. In recent decades, however, many of these vintage decoys have emerged as collectors’ items.
The value of a decoy depends on a variety of factors, including its condition (both of the paint and of the wood itself), its rarity, and the reputation of the carver. Decoys of some species—like wood ducks and teal—are rarer than others, as are decoys carved in unusual poses like sleeping, swimming, or feeding. Those never actually used for hunting, of course, tend to be in better condition and, thus, more valuable.
The list of carvers is literally endless, but some names stand out above the rest. Perhaps the most famous practitioner was Elmer Crowell (1862-1951), a masterful carver and painter who lived in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His decoys generally have carved wings and glass eyes, and he often used a rasp to imitate feathers on the back of his decoys’ heads and on their breasts. In 2000, a preening Canada goose that he carved sold at an auction for $684,500, the current world record for a decoy.
Other notable carvers include Lathrop T. Holmes, who used a limited but expressive palette of colors. “Gus” Wilson’s attention to detail was almost unrivaled, while many of the approximately 10,000 decoys in 50 years made by the Ward Brothers of Maryland were purely decorative. Charles Perdew and his wife, Edna, were a team—he carved and she painted. And Ken Anger perfected the technique of using a rasp to make his decoys look soft and realistic.
In addition to hand-carved decoys, some of the high-quality decoys produced in late-19th-century factories are also highly collectible. The main factories included Mason, Victor, Dodge, Stevens, Peterson, Evans, and Reynolds. Most of these factories used either a duplicating lathe, an assembly line, or both.
Although many of the more successful companies’ decoys were quite similar to one another, some particularly innovative examples are valuable today. One, for example, flapped its wings—a terrible failure for a hunter, but a great find for a collector. Another prize is a factory-made rubber decoy from 1867.
Interviews & Articles
Thirty-five years ago, after I graduated college, I needed some decoys for hunting. I had used my father’s wooden decoys ever sinc… [more]
My interest in 20th-century American self-taught art came about after I had gone through a million other things—from stamps to boo… [more]
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
American Folk Art Museum
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Folk Art in Bottles
Index of American Design
Clubs & Associations: Folk Art
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Recent News: Duck Decoys
Source: Google News
A little on duck decoy historyThe Warner Robins Patriot, May 23rd
One of the most popular shows on television right now is Duck Dynasty and we have recently come across a large number of duck decoys in a local estate, so I thought our readers might enjoy a little duck decoy history! The first duck decoys were...Read more
Nevada's Indian Territory Exhibit OpensIndian Country Today Media Network, May 23rd
TravelNevada.com reports that Nevada's Indian Territory "consists of a wall of photographs on a background resembling a traditional American Indian basket, a tule duck decoy created by Mike Williams of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, a cradleboard...Read more
2013 Shore Guide: There's more to see than Sand and SnookiNJ.com (blog), May 22nd
Located on 40 acres, the seaport is a collection of 20 buildings offering visitors an eclectic mix of seaside life that includes everything from a duck decoy gallery to a working boatworks building. The seaport suffered about $300,000 worth of damage...Read more
Waterfest champs repeat as rivals duck outFlorida Today, May 18th
Alas, no competitors showed up Saturday — but they took to the water regardless, towing a duck decoy in their wake. Space Coast Waterfest is intended to teach residents about aquatic recreation and safety, said Matt Culver, Brevard County boating and...Read more
Last-minute amendment could add a state drink for NevadaMyNews3 Las Vegas KSNV, May 18th
bird (Mountain Bluebird), insect (Vivid Dancer Damselfly), reptile (Desert Tortoise), animal (Desert Bighorn Sheep), fish (Lahontan Cutthroat Trout), fossil (Ichthyosaur), artifact (tule duck decoy), metal (silver), precious gemstone (Virgin Valley...Read more
Local woodworking artists display their wares at new Moorhead shopIn-Forum, May 17th
“Technically, I started because I wanted a duck decoy and I was too cheap to buy one,” said Longtine, 70. He's come a long way since then, opening a woodcarving/woodturning store and workshop. Longtine and fellow woodcarver/woodturner Ruth Severson...Read more
Pinckneyville juveniles in court on duck decoy theftsDu Quoin Evening Call, May 7th
On Thursday, May 2 the Perry County Sheriff's Department made arrests in reference to recent duck decoy thefts in west Perry County. Parents of the juveniles brought their sons to the Perry County Sheriff's Department and turned them over to...Read more
Reluctant to leave homeThe Advocate, May 5th
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Bubbles flow up to the surface next to a duck decoy in a pond on Rhett Pipsair's property in the Bayou Corne community. Scientists say the chemical makeup of the bubbles might indicate gas from deep underground is...Read more