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 the style and construction of decoys varied by region and carver, the most common woods used were white pine and white cedar, which were both durable and buoyant.
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 rugg...
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.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
National Carousel Association
American Folk Art Museum
The Outsider Art Pages
Folk Art in Bottles
Index of American Design
Clubs & Associations
- Midwest Decoy Collectors Association
- Great Lakes Decoy Association
- The Wheelmen
- Folk Art Society of America
Other Great Reference Sites
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: Duck Decoys
Source: Google News
Decoys get their due as folk art specimensBurlingtonFreePress.com, August 23rd
At the Hale Duck Decoy, a historic site that has been preserved in Cheshire, England, dogs were used to scare ducks into the "pipes," hooped nets overarching the appendages of the pond. In North America, by contrast, the prevalent waterfowl decoy was...Read more
DAILY CALENDARPort Huron Times Herald, August 23rd
19th Annual Heritage Days, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Featuring outdoor 3D archery course; children's activities including fishing at trout pond, learning fly tying, painting bird house or duck decoy; Lenox Fire Department fire safety house; certified...Read more
Maskull Lasserre Reveals Skeletons Inside Old Wooden Statues and DecoysVisual News, August 21st
From one side they look just as they were intended, but turn them around and a macabre scene awaits. Artist and carver Maskull Lasserre (featured previously) started with a series of old souvenirs and a duck decoy, then in a process he calls “re...Read more
Don't say goodbye to summer just yetBurlington County Times, August 21st
Catch all the action with pirate shows, take in exhibits and activities including antique boats, duck decoy carving and. more, and participate in pirate-themed sing-alongs. The event is in. Historic Cold Spring Village, 720 Route 9 S., right outside...Read more
Review: Salt + Smoke Distinguishes Itself in the Crowd of New St. Louis BarbecueRiverfront Times (blog), August 20th
Paintings of animals on the range adorn the muted blue walls and shelves filled with folded-up blue jeans, a duck decoy and various other old-timey items give off a hip vintage vibe. Nico's polish still shines through -- Salt + Smoke is on the upscale...Read more
Salt + Smoke Serves BBQ in the Delmar LoopRiverfront Times, August 19th
Paintings of animals on the range adorn the muted blue walls and shelves filled with folded-up blue jeans, a duck decoy and various other old-timey items give off a hip vintage vibe. Nico's polish still shines through — Salt + Smoke is on the upscale...Read more
Duck decoys, calls on display at showShreveport Times, August 11th
Decoys like these will be on display at the Louisiana Duck Decoy Show on Aug. 23 in Baton Rouge. (Photo: Submitted photo ). CONNECTTWEETLINKEDINCOMMENTEMAILMORE. The annual Louisiana Duck Decoy Show is slated for Aug. 23 at the ...Read more
On the hunt for art? Decoys, paintings, prints, jewelry on show at Open Studio ...WatertownDailyTimes.com, July 29th
ALEXANDRIA BAY — Glenn Sweet, a third-generation carver, made his first duck decoy when he was 10 years old under the tutelage of his grandfather. At 13, Mr. Sweet began making and selling his decoys professionally. After decades of building a ...Read more