The History of Decoys
There is a stretch of land along the Atlantic Flyway that is legendary for its carvers: Assateague Island.
Some years ago, on an ordinary day, some hunters returned to their game traps hopeful they’d take home a decent haul.
They came upon one of their traps, only to find it empty. It was clear to them that, at some point, an animal found itself unable to escape from the trap. Then, someone—or something—took it away.
They reported the thievery to local law enforcement. When a ranger came to the scene of the crime, he saw one piece of evidence: a cigar.
And, on Assateague Island, the wrapped tobacco leaves pointed to one man: Cigar Daisey.
Daisey was a legend in his hometown of Chincoteague, VA, and on the Eastern Shore: a true waterman who grew up hunting and fishing. Like many of the watermen in Maryland, Daisey made duck decoys as a way of life. The decoys brought ducks, and ducks brought dinner for Daisey and markets to whom he sold what he shot.
The waterman’s life was intertwined with the history of his community, the livelihood of the local duck markets and the unfolding history of decoy carving as folk art. Daisey’s story is a small picture of the story of decoy carving in America, a history that started in a cave in Nevada, of all places.
The Beginnings: Native American Decoys
In 1911, two men ventured into Lovelock Cave, a modest burrow in the earth about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Reno. The men, presumably holding lanterns, ventured in looking for guano. They’d scrape the fertile substance from the walls of the cave and then sell it as fertilizer.
What the men didn’t know that, amid their search for a filthy yet profitable excrement haul, they would inadvertently find Native American duck decoys dating back to sometime around the birth of Christ.
The men found 11 canvasback decoys made from feathers and tule, a native plant with long green shoots about as wide as a finger.
The tule shoots used have turned a light brown color. The weaving is still intact. In one of the two birds, the hunter included feathers where wings should be, representing an attention to lifelikeness that no doubt won the artists their fair share of canvasbacks.
“The ducks had been tucked away for roughly 2,000 years, making them the oldest decoys of their kind found anywhere on Earth. They show real artistry — more than seems necessary just to trick a duck,” Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Henry Dean wrote in a 2013 retrospective about the find.
The decoys are the official state artifact of Nevada.
The Boom: Market Hunting
From the 1800’s to the early 1900’s, market hunting fueled decoy carving.
When we say “market hunting,” we mean hunters going to the water to find and shoot ducks they’d sell at the local market. The simplicity of the definition belied its tremendous impact on local and regional economies, said Kristin Sullivan, executive director of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, a hub for decoy folk art in Salisbury, MD.
“Decoys were really important in the development of a lot of rural areas as a means to get food on the table and a means to make money,” Sullivan told us. “Hunters would sell their ducks in markets up and down the coast. It was important for the economy and families in the area.”
Local hunters made or bought decoys because their livelihood depended on it; economies relied on it. Art wasn’t an issue.
Getting materials to create enough ducks to meet demand fostered creativity and ingenuity among hunters and carvers, Sullivan said.
“Here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Virginia, carvers would sometimes use balsa that they would repurpose from Navy life rafts that washed up on shore,” she said.
Legendary Maryland decoy carvers Lem and Steve Ward made many of their ducks from cedar, and for very good reason.
“A lot of that red cedar was from downed telephone poles,” Sullivan said. “If a storm knocked down a telephone pole, they used that. They used whatever they could to make decoys.”
The Change: Market Hunting Outlawed
At the turn of the century, though, lawmakers realized that market hunting was a threat to the livelihood of migratory waterfowl.
Among the factors fueling the booming market was the punt gun. This gun was the equivalent of a massive shotgun, so big that a man couldn’t shoot it simply by picking it up and shooting it.
Rather, these massive guns would rest on the bow of the boat. The hunter would lay low and, when ducks would land among the decoys, he or she would slowly rise up, pull the trigger and kill dozens of birds at once. States started outlawing these guns in the mid-1800’s.
However, that only slowed the efficiency of market hunters. A Fish and Wildlife Service newsletter from 1941 featured an interview with a Louisiana market hunter who detailed the number of birds he was able to kill on a weekly basis.
“In the old days, a good market hunter down here shot an average of 100 birds a day and thought nothin’ of it,” the hunter said. “On an averaged good day he bagged between 140 and 150 birds. And it is no exaggeration to say that 25 to 30 birds was a poor day’s shootin’.”
Realizing that waterfowl populations were dropping drastically, bag limits became en vogue and, in 1918, the federal government banned market hunting via the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The next few decades saw an increased public awareness of the need for wildlife conservation.
The New Era: Competitions, Folk Art Emergence and Collectibles
The decline of market hunting reduced the demand for decoys but it did not eliminate it. Sport hunters were everywhere and they needed decoys.
A confluence of factors made decoy carving more than a utilitarian trade. Competitions, interest from folk art experts and the growth of the carvers themselves transformed decoy carving.
As market hunting declined, decoy competitions became more and more popular in the first part of the 20th century.
“These competitions were opportunities for decoy makers to compare their birds,” Sullivan said. “There was definitely artistic competition happening.”
These competitions pushed carvers and painters to make their birds realistic. Whereas many carvers had been focused on getting forms and basic colors right, this new era of competition shifted the focus to detail work, intricate painting and an attempt at hyper-realistic representations of various duck species.
Notoriety Among Art Critics
As this shift in artist happened, folk art experts starting recognized the artistic and cultural value of decoy carvers.
“It’s truly an art form and folk art because it represents the place and community these makers came from,” Sullivan said.
The regional influences and nuances based on which flyways a carver lived in added to the intrigue that drew the interest of folk-art critics. Each carver represented his or her community and the changes within it, making them purveyors not just of ducks but of legitimate American folk art.
By the late 20th century, it was clear that critics and collectors viewed duck decoys as more than just hunting accessories.
In 1985, the U.S. Postal Service released a series of four duck decoy stamps commemorating their place in American folk-art history.
A Washington Post article about the stamp release highlighted the emergence of decoy carving as a cherished cultural art form.
“Decoy-making reached its peak in the latter half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, despite competition from factory-made decoys,” the article noted. “Today, the carved decoys are the indispensable companions of those who enjoy the sport of wildfowl hunting.”
With this fame came an astronomical rise in the auction value of decoys from master carvers and painters up and down the East Coast.
In 2007, two decoys from famed Massachusetts carver Elmer Crowell sold for $1.13 million each. Decoys regularly sell for well above $500,00 at Guyette and Deeter, a Maryland-based auction house that specializes in duck decoys.
Closing Thoughts: Decoys Are a Portal to the Past
The carving traditions passed down through history are alive and well with the modern carvers we sell. Their decoys are the culmination of hundreds of years of tradition, evolution and innovation. Today’s carvers are a link to the past, as are those who collect decoys from the masters of today and yesteryear.
The art form is bigger than the collectors and the carvers, though.
“People will talk about decoys for a few minutes then they start talking about what they represent. They talk about learning from an old carver or the carver’s community,” Sullivan said. “It’s a point of access into a bigger world of conversation about identity, heritage, the natural environment and all the things the decoys represent.”