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.
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.
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.
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.
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