Steven Lloyd talks about antique duck decoys, discussing their history, how they were made, how they went from ubiquitous to rare, and the differences between factory-made decoys and those made by local woodworkers. He can be contacted via his website, decoyinfo.com.
Thirty-five years ago, after I graduated college, I needed some decoys for hunting. I had used my father’s wooden decoys ever since I could remember. My mother used to go hunting with them before I was born. I answered some ads in the paper—turns out there were literally thousands of wooden decoys for sale because everybody was changing to plastic. Many of the wooden decoys were just tossed in the garbage or given away, and a lot of them were burnt in fires.
So that’s how it started. Within a couple months, I was asked to put a small display on at a country museum. A reporter for one of Canada’s larger newspapers happened to be going by and interviewed me, and I thought, “Wow, cool. I’m famous. This duck thing is fun!” Immediately I started to appreciate the fact that each decoy was very different. I appreciated the art form rather than the tool that they were.
Although there were numerous books on decoys, most of my knowledge came from the carvers themselves or their families and friends. A lot of times I would get magnificent stories, sometimes very long, about the person or why a decoy was made a certain way rather than just seeing a picture of it in a book. I have lengthy stories on most of the decoys that I’ve studied.
Collectors Weekly: Does that change the significance of collecting for you?
Lloyd: Absolutely. These were used for hunting, and a lot of times hunters used them a hundred or so years ago. They’d go out hunting, lose one or two, then find one or two more. Sometimes the oddball ones can be worth many thousands of dollars. Back then nobody would’ve guessed that that you’d find something worth thousands of dollars just floating by, but it happened quite regularly.
Decoys actually go all the way back to Egyptian times, more than 2,000 years ago. In North America, they go back about 1,500 years. The Smithsonian has six or eight that are carbon-dated back about 1,500 to 1,800 years. They were found in caves in Nevada. Most early decoys were made with the materials on hand. In other words, if you’re by a marsh, you’d make them out of mud and grass and some feathers, maybe a dead bird or a bird that you captured and ate. As tools progressed into the 1700 and 1800s, people learned how to do carpentry and to carve wooden decoys. Most wooden decoys are from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.
Some hunters carved decoys themselves if they were in an isolated area, if there wasn’t a carver nearby, or if they had no money, which was often the case. In the 1920s and ’30s during the Depression, nobody had money to buy anything, so people would just make their own decoys. That’s an interesting point because each geographic area had decoys that were very similar because people would’ve copied the earlier decoys made in that area by prominent carvers.
So you may not exactly know who made the decoy, but it’s very likely you’ll know the area where it was made. A lot of times you’ll look at a decoy and you’ll go, “That’s a Toronto decoy,” or “That’s from upstate New York,” or “That’s a Southern California decoy.”
Collectors Weekly: Are there different schools of decoys?
Lloyd: The schools basically refer to the carvers. There are all kinds of buzzwords used by collectors and researchers. That’s one of them. Even the word “decoy” has numerous other names, such as “tollers.” In some areas they call them wooden blocks, decks, decs, or desk. There are all kinds of funny names for decoys.
Theoretically each region had a different school, but there were factories that made decoys and shipped them all over from the late 1800s to about 1880. If you didn’t have the skill or the wood to make decoys, you’d order them through a mail-order catalogue. These factories were in different parts of the United States and decoys were shipped everywhere in North America. The similar decoys from the state factories are surfacing every day.
Every day I get e-mails from collectors asking about the top four or five factories that made decoys: the Mason Decoy Company, the Victor Decoy Company, the Dodge Decoy Company, Stevens Decoy Company, Peterson Decoy Company, and Reynolds Decoy Company. I’m sure there are a few more, but those are the main ones. They started manufacturing decoys in the 1880s.
Collectors Weekly: Were there people who were handcrafting them?
Lloyd: Yes. Some go back to the 1700s and 1800s, but decoys weren’t as necessary back then. There weren’t as many people in North America, so the ducks weren’t as afraid of people and you just could literally put a log out in the water and they would come close. A lot of times they just captured the ducks rather than shooting at them because they didn’t have a gun to shoot them with. Native people never had guns. They just captured them in different ways. They would just use bulrushes or something like that, make a glob and let them float them off the shore to get ducks closer and then either net them or literally just grab them.
The big push on wooden decoys was in the mid- to late 1800s. That’s when commercial hunting was very prominent in North America along the eastern seaboard and most areas where there were large bodies of water. There would be commercial bird hunters just like there’d be commercial fishermen or butchers or bakers or carpenters.
The commercial hunter would hunt spring and fall, whenever the migrating birds came through. He would sell them each day to people in the town and that was his living. That stopped in North America between 1915 and 1917, but before that, there were no limits. You could shoot anything that squawked and you could shoot as many as you wanted. Then the North American Wildlife Act came into effect, and Canada and the United States got together and started protecting the migrating waterfowl of North America. Up until that point, you could hunt swans and cranes and shorebirds of all sorts.
A lot of people think of ducks when they think of decoys, but there are a lot of other different kinds of decoys out there, like shorebirds, for example. There’s the odd blue heron that surfaces, and the odd swans, loons, crows, and owls. A lot of these are legitimate hunting decoys from pre-1915, and some get into the many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There are decoys of pretty much all migratory water birds because they could all be eaten, but there are more decoys of ducks because there were more actual ducks to be caught.
Some shorebird decoys are extremely valuable. Swans surface quite often and every species of geese. Some areas have certain types of birds that migrate. For example, on the East and West coasts, you have Brent geese, but virtually no Brent geese migrate anywhere through Central U.S. or Canada, so you’d mostly find Brent decoys on the East or West coasts.
Collectors Weekly: How did hunting bans impact decoys?
Lloyd: Well, the North American Migratory Bird Act started to control hunting, and there’s a little bit of controversy on when exactly it happened because in Canada it was 1915 and different in the States it was 1917 and 1918. The Act made selling migratory birds illegal. You could shoot them for your own use and to eat them, but you couldn’t sell them. Certainly that law was stretched in every direction possible, but you couldn’t commercially sell a migratory bird to a restaurant or a hotel or a resort—pre-1915 you could do that.
It had a huge impact because most market hunters would use anywhere between 100 and 400 decoys every day. They would leave them out there day after day, sometimes for weeks at a time, so the strings would break and they’d float off and have to be replaced on a regular basis. After that, you had a limit on the number of decoys you could use. The market hunters just weren’t hunting the same.
But as the population increased in North America, more people were sport hunting, and decoys became more important in some ways because these sport hunters had different priorities. They would generally have more money. They were economically richer than most market hunters. They were sometimes doctors, lawyers, and more prominent people in the communities, and they would either make or purchase decoys that were very nice looking. The quality increased dramatically and therefore so did the value, although there are some that were made in the 1800s that are magnificent and worth a lot of money as well.
The sport decoys were a little bit better than the commercial ones. There was a little more work put into them, nicer paint, nicer carving, that kind of stuff. Commercial hunters used anywhere from a couple hundred to several hundred decoys in their rig or their flock, where a sport hunter would rarely use more than a hundred. They used 50 to a hundred decoys, and sometimes only a dozen or so, so they could afford to make them nicer and pay more money for them.
Collectors Weekly: Do hunters reuse the same decoys over and over?
Lloyd: Yes. Generally you have them for your lifetime, wooden decoys especially. You’d buy them when you were a young man and you use them until you were old. The interesting part about wooden decoys is that you would usually pass them down to a friend or a hunting partner or a family member. That’s how a lot of decoys to this day are still in the family from the original carver or the original hunter.
If you go to a decoy show, you’ll see almost everybody grabbing the decoy and flipping it over and looking at the bottom of it, hoping that there’s a signature of some sort on the bottom. Over 80 percent of the time, the signature was the hunter’s rather than the maker’s. The maker didn’t really consider it an art form. It was just a tool. Usually the hunters put their identifying marks on the bottoms so that they wouldn’t be taken home by a hunting partner, or if it was lost, somebody would return it to them.
I don’t know if there’s an actual time or date when it began to be identified as an art form, but people started collecting in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. There were some smaller collections, but mostly it was much bigger in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s when there was a transition to cheap, commercially-made plastic decoys and people were literally throwing wooden decoys out by the hundreds of thousands. They’d throw them out or sell them for $2 or $3 apiece.
My own father did the same thing. I was there the day that he sold his 110 decoys for $2 each because new plastic decoys—which were wonderful to use—were only $1.95. He thought he was way ahead of the game because the plastic ones were so much easier to use for hunting, but he had no concept of the value of the wooden decoys because at that time, there were literally thousands available for a couple dollars each. Nobody thought that they would be valuable down the road.
The other disadvantage of wooden decoys was their weight. Wooden decoys were generally heavy, and you could only carry a half a dozen or a dozen in a basket or a box, whereas you could carry maybe two dozen plastic ones. It was dangerous if you were out in a small boat (most duck boats were very small) with a hundred wooden decoys because that was a lot of weight, but if you had a hundred plastic decoys, it wasn’t as dangerous because they were light as a feather. They only weigh a couple ounces each where a wooden decoy can weigh a few pounds each.
Collectors Weekly: How many decoys do hunters usually bring with them?
Lloyd: Depending on what they’re hunting, sometimes only half a dozen and sometimes up to 50 or 100. And there are three different types of ducks, really: puddle ducks, diver ducks, and sea ducks. Sea ducks and diver ducks generally migrate in very large flocks, so you need large numbers of decoys. In ponds you only need a half a dozen or a dozen decoys and lots of ducks will come in still.
Here’s the theory: If you are in a strange town and you see a restaurant with a whole bunch of cars at it, you’re more likely to go to that one than the restaurant across the road with only one car or no cars in the lot. Migratory birds are the same way. If you have a lot of decoys, the birds are more likely to come to you than if you just have a small number of decoys.
There are a thousand philosophies on how to outsmart a duck. I don’t think anybody has figured it out yet.
If there were two hunters on the same lake or shoreline and one hunter has 50 decoys and the other hunter has 100, the ducks will probably go to the person with the most. So as sport hunting started, there were more hunters out there, and there was a competition for the birds that were coming in, so sometimes sport hunters would get larger numbers of decoys if there were more hunters in the area.
If a duck walked through your living room at home, you’d notice. And if a hunter is out there in the ducks’ pond where they’re used to being every day, they’ll notice. If you don’t do it in an amazingly camouflaged or natural way, they’re going to notice and they won’t come in to you. People go to unbelievable extremes to try to make hunters look natural in the environment—it’s a multibillion-dollar market.
Collectors Weekly: So do decoys mimic what a duck looks like?
Lloyd: Some are ugly as sin and don’t look anything like a duck, some are as perfect as you can get, and then there’s everything in between. The range of appearance in decoys is actually related to the thousand different philosophies on how to shoot ducks. Commercial hunters mostly hunted ducks on the water, so they tried to make decoys very natural-looking. For sports hunters, it was an honor thing that you never shot the ducks on the water because it was considered too easy. So some decoys would be very basic, just enough to lure ducks to fly over them without even landing. Other hunters would want the ducks to sit amid lifelike decoys for a period of time until more came.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect based on the type of bird or the carver?
Lloyd: Definitely the carver. I reluctantly use the term “artist.” In this day and age, if you carve a bird, you’re an artist, but back then, you were just a carver. It would be the same man that would make you a duck boat or a set of oars or an axe handle. He would have been a carver or a woodcrafter of some sort who made decoys on the side.
The term “folk art” was a label that was used by promoters, auction companies, and antique dealers for decoys that were made by some of these carvers. Today decoys are often considered folk art because they weren’t made as an art form originally. They were tools for hunting and only became art works when people started appreciating them for more than their functionality.
Some people do collect, say, shorebirds, others just collect ducks, and some people collect geese. But generally speaking, because there are so few of these anywhere, most people will just try to collect anything they can.
Collectors Weekly: Is value based on the rarity of a decoy or on the person who made it?
Lloyd: Both. The criteria for evaluating a decoy include who made the decoy as well as its rarity. Generally carvers made one decoy at a time, but they may have made a whole bunch of a certain species or a whole bunch a certain way. People would come in and say, “I want one with the head way out front like it’s swimming or fighting,” or “I want one in a sleeping position.”
Sometimes it wasn’t even the hunters who would order that. It would be their wives or their mothers who would say, “While you’re ordering your average blue-billed decoys or your average mallard decoys, can he make me a wood duck?” or “Can he make me a merganser?” Often that special-order decoy is worth many times the rest of all the other decoys because there’s only one of them ever made.
Mergansers are relatively rare because people in most areas didn’t hunt them. Any types of birds that you wouldn’t need as many decoys for, such as teal decoys, are usually more valuable. Teal, pin tails, and mergansers are probably at the top of that list. There’s a species called a wood duck that are generally worth quite a bit too. Shorebirds are extremely rare, but they surface fairly regularly.
There are some great stories. A little while ago I helped a fellow from Seattle, Washington. His dad died in Massachusetts and he was the only heir to his dad’s estate. His dad volunteered at Salvation Army and asked in his will that everything his son didn’t want would go to the store. The son had to be back in Seattle in four days, so most everything that wasn’t very small and personal was going to the store and had this truck there with a bunch of men moving all the furniture out. One guy yelled upstairs, “Hey, we’ve got some little wooden bird things in one of the drawers of these dressers. What do you want us to do with them?” And he said, “Just leave them by the door.”
So they took them out of the drawer and set them on the floor by the front door and the truck drove away. He came downstairs and thought, “Well, these are cool.” The really weird part is on his flight from Seattle, he was reading an article about me and my decoys in a magazine, so he phoned me and then e-mailed me some pictures. Those decoys were worth above $30,000 and they almost went to the Salvation Army.
Collectors Weekly: Do people all over the world collect decoys?
Lloyd: Mostly it’s a North America thing, but there are a lot of North American decoys in collections in different parts of the world. I know of numerous collectors in Japan, China, Germany, Finland, Sweden, England, Ireland, Scotland, Brazil, numerous Caribbean islands, a lot of different places.
It’s not like hunting didn’t happen outside of North America. For example, the royal families in England enjoyed hunting, but if you weren’t very wealthy, you didn’t get to hunt. There wasn’t a hunting history because they had game keepers on these gigantic estates. They’re on these royal estates where an average person couldn’t go on a hunt and shoot a bird or catch a fish.
In North America, it was the land of the free, and we could pretty much hunt and fish anytime and anywhere. In a lot of other countries in Europe, people weren’t allowed to just go and hunt, so there’s not a history of hunting waterfowl. In some countries, there’s virtually no history of it. There’s a little bit more in Germany and Italy, but compared to North America, there’s no other place on earth that has as many decoys.
Collectors Weekly: Do collectors ever still hunt with vintage decoys?
Lloyd: Some do. I have a friend that has about 200 wooden decoys and they’re all on shelves in his house. A couple times a year he likes to use them because of the heritage. I’ve been with him when he’s doing it and I think he’s a real nut. It’s really cool to go back in time, just like using a vintage boat. A friend of mine has a vintage cedar strip boat that was made in the ’20s, and he loves using it. It’s not that it’s any better necessarily, but it’s the whole feel of using something that’s vintage. When you’re paddling around or you’re using your decoys, you’re thinking of the history of the item.
Collectors Weekly: Are people still carving decoys?
Lloyd: There are a few people still carving them, but most of the new ones are used as decorations rather than for hunting, only because of the cost factor. They’re quite labor intensive. If an average person today has to make $10 an hour and it takes you two or three hours to make a decoy, then that’s a $20 or $30 decoy, whereas a plastic decoy is about $5. So there are still a number of people that do make wooden and cork decoys, but they’re very expensive compared to plastic and they’re not necessarily as perfect because a plastic decoy is pretty much a perfect mold of a duck.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a certain type of wood that is used?
Lloyd: Yes. The largest percentage of decoys in North America were made out of white cedar. It’s generally the best wood to use because cedar lasts a long time. Other woods are not as buoyant in the water and they’ll deteriorate.
Most of these sorts of design decisions were made by trial and error. People would make decoys and use them for a period of time, and then if it broke or fell apart, they would make it a different way. If a tradition was passed down, it was generally a tradition that was working. For example, red cedar doesn’t hold paint as well as white cedar. Most people wouldn’t know that unless they either made a decoy of red cedar and the paint all fell off, or if that information was passed down to them.
Other people tried to make decoys out of pine, basswood, balsawood. Balsawood is great because it’s very light, but it’s also very soft so it can be damaged easily. Some woods aren’t as buoyant in the water. If you use a heavier wood, half the decoy will be under the water and you’re defeating the purpose.
Collectors Weekly: Can you recommend any books for decoy collectors who are starting out?
Lloyd: Most of the books are regional. It wouldn’t necessarily be very helpful for someone in California to have a book on Canadian decoys. There are books on California decoys. There are books on West Coast decoys. Then there are some older, general books. There’s one called The Great Decoy Book of North America and a huge one called The Great Book of Waterfowl and Decoys. But the problem with any of these books is that you’re trying to put information about 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 carvers in a single book, and you only have room to put a few pictures. Each carver probably made several hundred or a few thousand decoys, so the odds of your decoy being in one of these books are very poor. But for general information on decoys, any of these books are good.
Two more to consider are Collector’s Guide to Decoys and North America Decoy Survey. But there’s no all-encompassing general reference book because decoys are so individual. I get that question a lot: What book can I buy to learn about decoys? It’s very hard. With the manufactured decoys, it’s easier, because if you’re starting to collect Mason decoys, there are about six books on Mason decoys and they’re very easy to find. You just go on Google and type in the word Mason decoy book. One is by Russ Goldberger. He’s done two books on Mason decoys. If a person really wants advice on a book, have them e-mail me and say, ‘Hey, I’m from Seattle, Washington. I’m from Connecticut. I’m from wherever. What’s a good book for decoys that I’ll find in this area?’
Numerous people have tried to publish price guides and every year there’s another one coming out. The problem is that every time you set a price for a unique item that there’s maybe only one or two of, the second you print the price it’s out of date.
Most people that have a bunch of decoys in their house would never consider insuring them. I bet you less than two or three percent of the people that have decoys have them insured with their house insurance. But if you had a painting or a watch or jewelry that was worth a few hundred or a few thousand, you certainly would tell your insurance company. Some people have a couple hundred decoys and it may be worth a hundred thousand dollars but they’re not insured and there’s no appraised value. There’s no way an insurance company could give a fair price because nobody knows what they are. So that’s one reason why anybody that has decoys should consider getting an appraisal done on them.
Beyond books, there are numerous regional clubs in different parts of North America. There’s one in California. There’s one in the Chicago area. There’s one in the Midwest, the Decoy Collectors Association. Generally they have one show a year. Again, most people should just e-mail me and tell me where they live and then I can tell them where the show is.
Collectors Weekly: Is there anything that we didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
Lloyd: Decoys are everywhere. They’re in everything from the biggest, fanciest condominiums in New York City to the smallest little cabins in the middle of the woods. There’s no rhyme or reason for why one is more valuable than another in either one of those locations. A year or two ago, I had a huge article done in one of the big newspapers in the city of Toronto, and I went around and visited a number of people. I went to a little cabin on a lake way up this horrendous, old, rickety road, and this man had about 30 decoys and two of them were worth about $20,000 to $30,000 each.
About an hour or two later, I was in the city of Toronto, a huge city with a zillion people, and I went to this gigantic mansion worth probably $10 million, and that guy’s decoys sucked. They were terrible, but they were his grandfather’s and he kept them for all these years. This other man, same deal, they were his dad’s, but his dad happened to buy them from a now very well-known, famous decoy maker. So it doesn’t necessarily matter where you came from or where your family came from or where the decoys came from. They could be very valuable.
(All images in this article courtesy Steven Lloyd of Decoyinfo.com.)