One of the most significant collections held by the Library is the John H. Daniels Collection.  It comprises 5,000 volumes collected over thirty years by John Hancock “Jack” Daniels and was donated to the Library by him and his wife between 1995 and 1999.  The magnitude of the gift required more room for housing than that which was available in the Vine Hill house and spurred the construction of the Library’s current building, including its climate-controlled F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room.

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Books in the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room.

The collection includes books, periodicals, manuscripts, and ephemera, and covers a variety of sporting topics including sporting art, horsemanship, foxhunting, equestrian sports, shooting, fly fishing, veterinary medicine, and more.  Anyone who has been on a tour of the Rare Book Room will be familiar with items from the Daniels collection such as the handwritten manuscript on fox hunting by Teddy Roosevelt or one of many books featuring a fore-edge painting.

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John H. Daniels.

Daniels was a life-long sportsman himself.  He played polo and was MFH of the Camden Hunt in South Carolina.  He co-founded and served as Joint-MFH of the Long Lake Hounds in Minnesota, and the Old Stonington Hunt in Illinois. He also served on the boards of the Carolina and Colonial Cup Steeplechases, and the National Steeplechase Museum.  He was a member of the board of directors here at the National Sporting Library from 1987 to 2004.

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John H. Daniels and family with the Long Lake Hounds.

By donating his impressive collection of sporting books to the NSLM, John Daniels preserved the books themselves and shared the knowledge contained within them.  He was adamant that his books should be used.  He envisioned scholars developing new research from and about these books and sharing it with the larger world.  In 2007 the NSLM realized that vision though the creation of a fellowship program named in his honor, The John H. Daniels Fellowship.  This September we will welcome our 80th Daniels Fellow.

The program is open to university faculty, graduate students, museum professionals, librarians, independent researchers, writers, and interested others.  Recipients of a Daniels Fellowship have come to the NSLM from across the country and around the world.  They are supported during their research through stipends, and out of town researchers are frequently housed in a cottage on the NSLM campus.  Research conducted through the program has resulted in the publication of books and articles, and scholars frequently share their research with the public through the NSLM’s lecture series.  Their research topics have been as varied as the Collection, including horsemanship and equestrian sport, art, fly fishing, shooting, and literature, just to name a few.

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Dr. David Gerleman, Professor at George Mason University and one of NSLM’s 2019 John H. Daniels Fellows discusses his research during a lecture in June 2019.

The application period for the 2020 John H. Daniels Fellowship program closes on August 15th.  I would like to encourage researchers whose projects touch on field sports or sporting art to look at our collections, and if they can identify useful resources, to apply for a John H. Daniels Fellowship.


SONY DSCErica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

This past week Sea Hero, the oldest living winner of the Kentucky Derby died of old age in Turkey.  He was 29 years old.

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Sea Hero.  Sketch by Lloyd Kelly in his book, Sea Hero 1993.  The gift of Lloyd Kelly, NSLM Rare Books Collection.

Sea Hero was bred in Virginia by Paul Mellon who had a long and successful career in horse racing on both sides of the Atlantic, but had so far been denied a win in the Kentucky Derby.  Sea Hero’s trainer, Mack Miller, was a member of the hall of fame but he too had yet to have a Kentucky Derby winner.  That would change for both men in May 1993.

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Jockey Jerry Bailey hoisted the trophy with trainer MacKenzie “Mack” Miller, left, and owner Paul Mellon after Sea Hero won the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 1993. ASSOCIATED PRESS.  From the Lexington Herald Leader

Although Sea Hero had put up some excellent performances, his record did not make him a favorite in the run for the roses.  He was 9th in a field of 19 with odds of 12.90-1.  Watch video of the race here.  Late in the race jockey Jerry Bailey makes an exciting move and Sea Hero dashes through a gap on the inside and charges down the rail for the win.  Sea Hero did not manage to repeat his performance in the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes but he had one last flash of glory later that summer, winning the Travers Stakes.  It had been 51 years since a Kentucky Derby winner had done so.  After the 1994 season he was retired to stud with a career record of 6-3-4 in 24 starts and earnings of $2,929,869.

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Mack Miller, Paul Mellon, and Sea Hero winning the 1993 Travers Stakes.  Image from the Blood-Horse article on the race in the August 28, 1993 issue.  NSLM periodicals collection.

His stud career began in 1995 at Lane’s End in Versailles, Kentucky, but didn’t fully develop until after he was purchased by the Turkey Jockey Club and relocated to Karacabey Pension Stud in 2000 where he stood at stud until being pensioned out in 2015.  According to Blood-Horse his lifetime progeny earnings worldwide total $19,165,928.

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Sea Hero statue in the boxwood garden at NSLM.

Sea Hero has been immortalized in two statues.  One at the Saratoga Race Course, and one right here at the National Sporting Library and Museum, just down the road from Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stables.  Our Sea Hero resides in the boxwood garden between the Museum and Library and is sometimes called upon to assist with educational programming.

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Children’s workshop at NSLM.

Here he is surrounded by children learning about proportion.  If you’d like to view our statue or learn more about the Kentucky Derby and the horses and personalities that make it the most glamorous of American horse races, come and visit the Library.


SONY DSCErica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

Coming from a non-sporting background I’ve learned a great deal about sporting topics since I joined NSLM three years ago.  One of my favorite discoveries is an American game bird, Scolopax minor, or the American Woodcock.  This bizarre bird also goes by a large number of colloquial names such as the Timberdoodle, the Whistledoodle, the Labrador twister, the Bogsucker, the Mudsnipe, and the Hokumpoke, just to name a few.

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Photo: Fyn Kynd/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The timberdoodle is a small bird with a well-camouflaged chunky body, a short neck and tail, and a very long, narrow, bill that ends in a prehensile tip.  This mobile tip allows it to find and grasp earthworms, the woodcock’s preferred food, as it probes underground with its bill.  The ears are positioned ahead of its eyes, between the eye socket and the base of its bill.  Its large eyes are located high and far back on its head giving it one of the broadest fields of vision of any vertebrate.   In order to provide space for this configuration, the woodcock’s brain is essentially upside down.  Its cerebellum is found under the rest of the brain, just above its spine, rather than in the usual position in the rear of the brain case.  No other bird sports this configuration.

Besides being odd looking the timberdoodle is also oddly behaved.  They have a very distinctive walk that resembles the inverse of a pigeon’s.  They step forward heavily with the front foot and rock their body back and forth while keeping their head still.  It is speculated that this disturbs worms in the ground allowing the woodcock to target them.  Regardless of function it is quite entertaining to watch.  Their vocalizations are also unusual.  The most common sound is described as a “peent,” and more closely resembles the call of an insect than of a bird.

Woodcocks eat their weight daily in earthworms and other invertebrates.  This diet requires moist ground and woodcock cover usually consists of young, dense forest with  plenty of damp, brambly, and brushy areas.  They drink a lot of water and rather than tilting the head back in the fashion of other birds, the timberdoodle uses its bill like a straw and sucks up a drink.

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Woodcock range map by Lang Elliott.

The range of the American woodcock covers the eastern half of North America from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  They breed in the north and migrate south for the winter.  They are crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk, and migrate by night.

In breeding season males sing and perform aerial displays to attract females.  Females brood and raise the chicks, usually four, alone.  Her nest is a simple hollow on the ground.

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Woodcock eggs.  From the Missouri Department of Conservation

After 21 days of brooding the eggs split longitudinally and chicks, which are able to travel within just a few hours, emerge.  The chicks are born with nearly adult sized feet and their bills start out at 15 mm and grow 2 mm a day.  They will begin probing for worms after two days, are nearly full grown and flying in less than a month, and the family breaks up at 6 to 8 weeks.

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Hen and chicks.  From Linda Rockwell’s Photo Feathers blog.

The enemies of the woodcock include domestic dogs and cats, foxes, and various raptors.  Their eggs are sought after by opossums, raccoons, skunks, and snakes.  In order to lure a predator away from her nest, the hen will create a distraction by faking a broken wing some distance from the nest and then breaking into flight at the last second as the predator attacks.  There have also been rare but persistent reports of woodcock hens flying out of harms way with their chicks clutched between their thighs.  Most modern authorities are skeptical of this behavior but the tales of witnesses continue to come in.

The American woodcock is a game bird whose hunting is regulated to a short period of time and a low bag limit.  The hunting can be challenging due not only to the woodcock’s preferred environment but also to its sometimes stubborn refusal to flush from cover.  One author I read said that he had to practically kick the bird out of cover.  Due to this predisposition to freeze in place and to it’s excellent camouflage, it is best to use a good bird dog, a pointer, retriever, or setter, to flush the birds from their cover. 

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Two hunters and their dog in classic woodcock terrain.  From Living Water Guide

Finding them is not the only challenge.  Once flushed, they burst from practically underfoot in heavy cover and then fly rather erratically, zigging and zagging or suddenly dropping back to the earth.  Getting a good shot off is not easy.  If a hunter manages to bag a woodcock or two the birds make a dinner that is either adored or hated, there is no middle ground.  They are said to have a liver-like flavor.

The Library has numerous books about woodcocks and woodcock hunting.  In addition, the woodcock has been featured frequently in sporting art.  In fact, the Library’s annual auction this year (May 29-June 5) has two woodcock etchings.  The first is by Roland Clark (1943)…

roland clark

and the second is by William Schaldach (1940).

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For more information about this unusual bird drop by the Library and I’d be pleased to share our books about the Timberdoodle with you.  Or read more about them at the various sites I’ve linked to in this week’s blog.


SONY DSCErica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

This year marks the 500th running of the Kiplingcotes Derby, the oldest continuously run horse race in England.  It is a grueling four and a half mile, cross country race over the Wolds of Yorkshire that has been run annually on the third Thursday of March since 1519.  The Library holds a copy of The Kiplingcotes Derby: England’s Oldest Horse Race by Alison Ellerington which can shed some light on the history of this ancient race.

It was founded by 48 hunting gentlemen who all contributed between 5 and 30 pounds.  The rules drawn up by this group are dated 1519 so one assumes that the race began that year.  However, the earliest recorded mention of the race that Ellerington could locate was found in testimony dated 1556 which refers to the previous year, 1555.  The account books of the Earl of Burlington show entrance fees for the race in 1679, and the race appears regularly in the Racing Calendar during the 1700s.

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Two entries for the Kiplingcotes Derby in the Library’s collection.  The upper is from An Historical List of Horse-Matches Run, and of Plates and Prizes, Run for in Great Britain and Ireland in 1746. (Gift of Russell Arundel).  The lower is from Racing Calendar: Containing an Account of the Plates, Matches, and Sweepstakes Run for in Great Britain and Ireland &c. in the year 1773 by James Weatherby (Gift of Edmund Twining III).

Among the fifteen rules governing the race are some rather specific requirements.  Any horse, gelding, or mare of any age is eligible to run but all entrants to the race must appear at the Winning Post and submit their stakes money to the clerk at or before 11am.  Anyone that misses this deadline is not eligible to race.  The race must be completed before 2pm.

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Winning Post. Image taken from Hull & East Yorkshire History Calendar. 

All horses must carry a rider weighing 10 stone, or 140 pounds.  Riders lighter than this will have to carry weights upon their person in order to meet the requirement as opposed to carrying additional weight in a saddle cloth as is common in the present day.  Ellerington notes at least one winner that ran into trouble with weights and was disqualified as a result.  In 1961, Jean Cole-Walton carried 11 pounds of lead weights in her pockets in order to meet the 10 stone requirement.  During the race they fell from her pockets.  Although she was the first to pass the winning post, she ended up weighing 11 pounds under the minimum and was disqualified as a result.

The winner of the race is awarded prize money and the Kiplingcotes Plate.  The original plate later became known as the East Yorkshire Plate and has since been lost to history.  Today winners get prize money and a trophy.  According to the rules the second rider to pass the winning post wins the stakes money or entry fees.  Depending on how many horses are entered this could, and frequently does, result in the second place rider winning more money than the first place rider.

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Kiplingcotes Derby trophy. Image taken from Driffords and Wolds Weekly.

On the day of the race, horses and riders present themselves at the Winning Post to register, pay their fees, and get weighed.  After the 11:00 cutoff time for registration, the rules of the race are read to the riders, following which the participants walk the course back to the starting point which is a stone post in the parish of Etton.  The race is run from this starting stone back to the Winning Post.  Alison Ellerington’s map and description of the course are worth quoting in full:

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The Kiplingcotes course from The Kiplingcotes Derby: England’s Oldest Horse Race by Alison Ellerington (1990).

“The course starts 160 feet above sea level and heads in a north westerly direction.  Following the road, the horses galloping along the grass verge climb steadily to 368 feet over Goodmanham Wold.  Galloping towards Enthorpe Woods, over the old railway bridge, the going is slightly downhill, dropping 303 feet — a lull before the hard climb towards the finish.  At Enthorpe Woods the course is now on a green lane left by the commissioners after the enclosures during the 1800s.  From here horse and rider drop a little before the long steady climb up to 438 feet above sea level.  This part of the course is usually thick pulling mud, which tires a horse even more should one make the mistake of riding along the middle of the track instead of trying to keep well into the side by the field.  The course from here is a steady pull up to the main A163, where it levels out with a straight gallop down the grass verge to the winning post over on Londesborough Wold: a hard testing four and a half miles.  Not only do the contours of the Wolds make the race tough, the weather does not usually help; a cold biting wind normally blows and it is not uncommon for snow to be present still, or, failing that, a stinging rain” (p. 15).

Since 1519 there have been at least a few years when the race was only technically run.  In 1947 deep snows prevented entrants from reaching the Winning Post.  A local farmer, Fred Stephenson, was read the rules by the clerk of the race and proceeded to walk his horse through the course in order to maintain tradition.  Stephen Crawford did the same thing in 2001 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease prevented the running of the race.  He kept the tradition alive again last year when the condition of the course was deemed too dangerous for racing.  Hopefully this week will see good weather and a successful race to mark the 500th anniversary.

If you’d like to take a look at Alison Ellerington’s book, The Kiplingcotes Derby: England’s Oldest Horse Race, you can find it in the Library’s Main Reading Room.

*Update:  The 500th running of the Kiplingcotes Derby was won by Tracey Corrigan on her horse Frog.  They triumphed over a field of 36 competitors and it was her fourth time winning the race.


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Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

A recent reference question sent me on a hunt to find out if any fillies had ever won the Kentucky Derby.  It turns out that three ladies have won the fabled race at Churchill Downs.  The first was a chestnut mare with a white blaze named Regret who won the 1915 contest.

Regret was bred and owned by Harry Payne Whitney, a member of America’s horse racing royalty.  He was the leading American owner by earnings six times between 1905 and 1930, as well as the leading American breeder from 1926 to 1932.  Her trainer was James G. Rowe, Sr., a former jockey who had an illustrious second career as a trainer of racehorses.  Over his career he trained more than 30 champions.

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Regret at Saratoga.  From Women of the Year by Avalyn Hunter (2004).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

For her debut season in 1914, Regret ran in and won a series of three races at Saratoga.  The first was the Saratoga Special, the second was the Sanford Memorial, and the third was the Hopeful Stakes.  In all these races she ran against colts, including the season’s best juvenile colt, Pebbles, in the final two.  Following this brilliant first season she was rested until the Kentucky Derby in May 1915.

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Regret with trainer James Rowe (left) and owner Harry Payne Whitney (right).  From Women of the Year by Avalyn Hunter (2004).  National Sporting Library & Museum, the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

At the time, the Kentucky Derby was not the iconic American race that it is today.  Most of the prestigious races were based in New York.  Matt Winn, the general manager of Churchill Downs, was working hard to raise the cachet of the track.  In order to lure top competitors to the Derby, he decided to make it the richest race of the season.  The winner’s purse was $11,450 and a gold cup.  This outstripped the purses at eastern races, where the Preakness Stakes purse was $1,275 and the Belmont’s was $1,825 that year.

Regret led the field from the start and won the race by two lengths in 2:05 2/5.  The sensation of a filly beating the boys, the incredible purse, and Whitney’s statement following the race that, “She has won the greatest race in America, and I am satisfied,” all combined to help launch the Kentucky Derby on the path to in fact becoming the greatest race in America.  It would be 65 years until Regret had company.

Oddly enough it would be another chestnut filly with a white blaze that would finally join Regret as a lady of the Kentucky Derby.  The horse that would become known as Genuine Risk was born on February 15th, 1977.  At the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July sale of yearlings 14-year-old Matthew Firestone spotted her and lobbied his parents, Bert and Diana Firestone, to purchase the filly.  They agreed and Genuine Risk began schooling at the Firestone’s farm near Waterford, Virginia.  She is described as generally gentle but opinionated, and was known to sometimes run off with exercise riders.

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Genuine Risk following the Kentucky Derby.  From The Blood-Horse, May 10, 1980, pg. 2508.

As a two year old, she began training with LeRoy Jolley and made her debut on September 30, 1978 at Belmont Park.  She was undefeated in this first season of racing, and her winning streak continued into her second season.  She was doing so well it was decided to test her against colts in the Wood Memorial Stakes, a race that is often a precursor to Kentucky Derby appearances.  She ran the entire race just behind Plugged Nickle and Colonel Moran and finished in third, 1 and 3/4 lengths behind the boys.  There was a bit of drama when her jockey claimed a foul but in the end the stewards did not agree and the results stood.

This loss cast doubt on whether running with the boys was too much for Genuine Risk and her appearance in the Kentucky Derby was doubted by many.  However, she recovered well from Wood Memorial race and the Firestones, her trainer, and her jockey all felt she would be competitive in the Derby and she was entered.  As the big day approached speculation abounded about all the contestants.  The Lexinton Herald polled 44 members of the media and only five predicted Genuine Risk as the winner.  Twenty-six of them predicted that she would finish out of the money altogether.

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Genuine Risk winning the Kentucky Derby.  From The Blood-Horse, May 10, 1980, cover.

As it happened, she held back for the first half of the race and then moved to the outside,  charged to the lead, and stayed there through the finish line where she joined Regret in a very exclusive club.  After 65 years there were now two Ladies that owned the Kentucky Derby.  Later Harper’s Bazaar named Genuine Risk one of its seven top women achievers for 1980.

The most recent filly to win the roses was aptly named, Winning Colors.  She accomplished the feat in 1988.  Like the two fillies that preceded her, she had a white blaze, but she had a roan rather than a chestnut coat.  She was bred by Don Sucher at Echo Valley Horse Farm in Kentucky.  At the July auction in 1986, trainer D. Wayne Lukas liked the looks of her and purchased her for an owner he represented, Eugene Klein.  Lukas and his son Jeff began training her among a stable of talented horses.  Her first race was at Saratoga on August 13.  She won by 2 1/2 lengths over Epitome, who would go on to become the champion of the two year old filly division.  She continued her racing career on the west coast of the United States winning all but one of the races she entered.  On April 9th 1988 in the Santa Anita Derby, she easily led a field of 3 year old colts and won by 7 1/2 lengths.  From that moment on there was no doubt that she would compete in the Kentucky Derby the following month.

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Winning Colors.  From The Blood-Horse, May 14, 1988, Cover.

On the big day at Churchill Downs she would charge to the front of the field and stay there the entire race.  In an exciting finale, she was challenged in the home stretch by Forty Niner who closed a seven length lead.  But Winning Colors held on to win by a neck, and joined Regret and Genuine Risk as a Lady of the Kentucky Derby.

To learn more about these wonderful fillies and their lives after the Kentucky Derby, or to brush up on your Kentucky Derby history, just drop by the Main Reading Room and I’d be happy to show you some resources.


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Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

As I’ve been working on cataloging the Library’s periodical holdings, I’ve come to realize that these journals provided an outlet for artists and engravers, both of which were frequently employed to provide illustrations for publication.  One such journal that is absolutely crammed with lovely engravings is the French weekly newspaper, La Chasse Illustree, (The Illustrated Hunt) which ran under slightly varying titles from 1867 to 1914.  The Library holds the first year, 1867-8, and the tenth year 1877 as two bound volumes.

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Original 1867 masthead for La Chasse Illustree.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

The original masthead includes the subtitle, journal des plaisirs de la ferme et du chateau, or pleasures of the farm and castle, and lists topics covered such as fishing, natural history, and travel.

By the tenth year the masthead has been updated somewhat.  The subtitle has changed to, journal des chasseurs et la vie a la campagne, or journal of hunters and country life.  The words describing content on the earlier masthead have been replaced by illustrations and we can see a variety of hunters, fishermen, and shooters, shown in scenes surrounding the title.

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The masthead in 1877.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

As the title suggests this journal covers a wide range of sporting life.  Despite my inability to read the french text, a survey of the engravings clearly displays the variety of topics covered.

Here we find the expected hunters, such as this highland stalker.

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Highland hunter. Samedi 24 Mars 1877.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

As well as images of the hunter’s companions, like this bird dog.

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Bird dog. Samedi 23 Fevrier 1878.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

Hunters of every sort appear in the pages.  Not only men but also animal predators, including some rather exotic beasts like these leopards chasing after Tragopan Satyrs (a Himalayan pheasant)…

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Leopards.  Samedi 12 Mai 1877.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

an octopus…

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Octopus. Samedi 1 Decembre 1877. T. Wood, Butterworth and Heath.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

and even a spider!

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Spider. Samedi 26, Octobre 1878. T. Specht.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

The techniques used by hunters are also shown.  Here are two hunters using a blind to hide from their quarry.

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Hunters using a blind. Samedi 24 Aout 1867.  Yan Dargent, Huyot.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

This chap is using a complicated looking trap to try and capture some birds.  His set up even includes a tethered live decoy which can be seen at the far left of the image.

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Bird traps. Samedi 8 Fevrier 1868. E Ade’ Stuttgart, E. Foeest.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

And this interesting cross sectional image shows another trap, this one for fish.

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Fishing with net. Samedi 28 Septembre 1867. F. Lehmert, Huyot.  The gift of John H. and Martha Daniels.

If you can make the trip to visit the Library I’d love to bring out these two volumes for you to spend an afternoon browsing through.  The illustrations I’ve included hardly scratch the surface of this fantastic collection of weekly journals.


SONY DSCErica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail

Most of us have probably seen a wooden duck decoy in an antiques store, at an auction, or in a friend’s home, but the decoy was a utilitarian tool long before it became a collectible sculpture.  Hunters of waterfowl have used decoys from earliest times to lure their quarry into striking range.  Rather than attempting to stalk skittish birds which would fly off at the slightest sound, hunters could lay a trap that would get the birds to come to them.  By putting out a spread of decoys the hunters might trick the target birds into thinking the area safe and welcoming.  As the birds fly in for a landing, the hunters are able to bag a few and put some food on the table.  The use of decoys made waterfowl hunting a reliable source of food.

Decoys have been made out of handy materials such as reeds, carved from a variety of woods, made of cork or injection molded plastic, and even been tethered live birds.

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Duck decoys ca. 400 BC–AD 100
Lovelock Cave, Humboldt County, Nevada
Tule rush, feathers, cordage, paint, 31 x 12 cm
Collected by Mark R. Harrington
13/4512, 13/4513.
Image from The National Museum of the American Indian.

Excavations in 1924 at Lovelock Cave, Nevada revealed a cache of duck decoys made by Native Americans approximately 2000 years ago.  The bodies are made of tule and some of them have duck feathers attached to make them seem more life-like.  Today they can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

In the United States, following the Civil War, subsistence hunting of waterfowl was rapidly replaced by market hunting.  The booming cities of the country required staggering amounts of food, and fowl of all sorts was on the menu.   To meet this need hunters began to harvest waterfowl in huge numbers.  To do this, they needed equally large numbers of decoys.  With a wide spread of decoys, several flocks of waterfowl could be lured into a small area.  Hunters would then use extremely large shotguns called punt guns, to harvest as many as 100 birds with a single shot.

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Waterfowl hunter with mounted punt gun.  By Sydney Harold Smith (or collaborators on his behalf) – This file has been provided by York Museums Trust as part of a GLAMwiki partnership., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31565244

At the same time the popularity of sport hunting was on the rise.  The wealthy members of shooting clubs created an additional demand for decoys.  Some market hunters began to supplement their income by carving and selling decoys to sport hunters.  Regional carvers emerged specializing in the local varieties of waterfowl.  This trend towards the commercialization of decoy carving was intensified when over-hunting led to the regulation of wildfowl shooting.

In 1913, the Federal Migratory Bird Law, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, effectively ended market gunning in the United States and transformed waterfowl hunting into a highly regulated sport.  Many of the men that had made a living through market hunting now turned to decoy carving.  As specific carvers became highly sought after, wait lists for custom, hand-carved decoys became common.   Seeing an opportunity, entrepreneurs such as George Petersen, Jasper N. Dodge, and William J. Mason opened factories to produce decoys on an industrial scale.

 

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Early factory Mallard drake.  George Petersen Factory.  Image from RJB Antiques.

Fast forward to the present day and what began as hunting equipment has become valuable American folk art.  Decoys carved by individuals, as well as those made in factories, are in high demand.  In 2007 two decoys by A. Elmer Crowell, a carver from East Harwich, Massachusetts, were sold in a private sale for $1.1 million each!  His preening Pintale drake duck, and sleeping Canada Goose, are both quite beautiful and have each set records in past sales.  I expect they will again the next time they are for sale.

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Preening Pintail drake, circa 1915.  Image from Antiques and the Arts Weekly.
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The sleeping Canada Goose decoy, circa 1917.  Image from Antiques and the Arts Weekly.

The Library holds numerous books on the history of the use and manufacture of decoys, as well as books dealing with the collection of them.  If you have a decoy sitting on the mantle piece perhaps you can come to the Library to research it’s origins.


Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail