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NORTH AMERICAN DECOYS


The Hunter’s Tool Turned Million-Dollar Folk Art

I wonder whether the McMansioneers along the Hampton’s Shinnecock Bay appreciate the duck blinds tucked into the last bits of untouchedsalt marsh as remnants of a wildfowling paradise that stretched a hundred miles along Long Island, from Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay to Montauk Point. Chances are they can’t tell a red-breasted merganser from a goldeneye, much less identify the plovers, sandpipers, and other shorebirds clinging to life in the tidal flats.

Although these newcomers appreciate their eye-appealingwater-worn duck carvings as folk art, they may not realize these were working decoys over which thousands of market gunners and sportsmen killed countless birds. This unregulated “golden age” started in the 1840s and ended in 1918 when Congress ratified the Migratory Bird Treaty, which stopped market hunting, set open seasons and bag limits, and protected species like wood duck and eider.

Before the 1840s, East Coast waterfowlers didn’t really need decoys (derived from the Dutch word kooi, for cage). Their production and refinement arose from the need to lure more birds within killing range to meet the hungry demands of big-city diningtables. Foremost on the menu were mallard, canvasback, greater scaup, and black ducks, followed by pintail, teal, goldeneye, Canada goose, brant, wigeon, and even such reputedly unappetizing seafowl as old squaw and eider. Also available were “baybirds” like snipe, dowitcher, and willet as well as various yellowlegs, curlews, and godwits.

Although tethering live wildfowl to attract flying birds dates back to ancient Egypt, decoy carving is a distinctly North American activity. In 1924, a rig of 2,000-year-old floating canvasback decoys woven from bulrushes by pre-Paiute Indianswas discovered in Nevada’s Humboldt Range. In 1687, a French visitor to Lake Champlain described Indians making decoys from stuffed wildfowl skins attached to flat wooden bottoms.

Waterfowl decoys divide into “floaters” and mounted “stickups.” “Action” decoys show ducks preening or shorebirds feeding or running. “Confidence” decoys of wary species like crows and herring gulls, were set out to reassure skeptical gamebirds.

If it’s true that “form follows function and the result is beauty,” then the best decoys have earned their place as sculpture. Of course, the criteria for a first-class decoy aren’t an elegant posture, artful feather painting, or stylish embodiment of the bird’s essence, but rather its effectiveness in pulling down birds. The wedge-shaped head of a canvasback or the sweeping lines of a pintail must lure down migrating birds on the wing. Like sculptors, the decoy carver uses silhouette, proportion, posture, and behavior to separate the plucky sanderling from a ruddy turnstone dressed for winter. Decoys must also realistically ride waves and rock in the breeze without capsizing.

It’s important to remember that contemporary decorative bird carving and retired handmade decoys are entirely different objects; like the difference between working dogs and lapdogs, the intention, spirit, and aura aren’t the same.

Decoys were first considered display-worthy in 1876 at the U. S. Centennial in Philadelphia. They achieved the status of American Folk Art in a 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, valued for their sculptural qualities, regional and individual styles, and historical importance. Still, most of the best works remain in private collections rather than in museums and galleries. Although dozens of carvers have carved their way to fame, most remain anonymous, as not all decoys double as art. One sporting art dealer guestimates that each of 20 waterfowling locales produced one to five important decoy “artists.”

Many old-time East Coast decoy makers were professional baymen, fishing, eeling, oystering, and wildfowling, and gathering showy plumes for ladies’ hats with the seasons. Some, like the Long Island Verity clan, produced three generations of carvers; Obediah Verity (1850-1910) is the most famous, yet little is known about this bachelor’s life.

Thomas Gelston ( 1851-1924) was a gentleman sportsman of independent means, based in Quogue, Long Island. Initially a hobbyist, he later sold his cork-bodied shorebirds, known for superbly shaped heads and necks, through Abercrombie & Fitch. His Hudsonian curlew brought $450,500 at auction in 2006, a record for a Long Island decoy.

Currently the most acclaimed carver is A. Elmer Crowell ( 1862-1952), born in East Harwich, Massachusetts . The son of a mariner and cranberry grower, Crowell received his first gun, Cape Cod’s first breechloader, at age 12 and quickly set up a gunning stand on a family lakeside property. Crowell famously used live decoys, keeping flocks of geese with good honkers and training his ducks to fly wild ducks back to his blind. (Live decoys were banned under federal law in 1935.)

A child of the Atlantic flyway, he started carving decoys at 14. After wealthy Boston sportsmen discovered Cape Cod, Crowell evolved from local market gunner to hunting guide for several private gunning clubs, whose members became his first patrons.

When market hunting ended, Crowell added delightful miniatures to his gunning models of Canada geese, teal, and scaup. Crowell’s work captures the characteristic charm of each species’ figure and attitude. His attention to detail, the delicately carved tails and overlapping primaries, and ingenuous brushwork that create the depth and softness of shorebirds’ singular plumage, earned him esteem during his lifetime; his work even appeared on U. S. postage stamps in 1974 and 1988.




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One of his black-bellied plovers, a “dust-jacket bird” for its appearance on the cover of eminent collector William J. Mackey Jr.’s definitive book, American Bird Decoys, fetched $830,000 in 2006; a 1915 preening pintail changed hands in 2007 for $1.13 million.

(Decoys from Mackey’s collection, which began appearing on the market with his death in 1973, have an especially respected provenance, which is increasingly important in the sale of all art. One “Mackey” that sold in 1973 for $10,000 sold for $460,000 in 2000!)

Because keeping live decoys year-round was so expensive, most market hunters began carving their own. One fellow claimed to have carved 25,000 decoys in 50 years! Later, decoy factories such as Mason Dodge and C. W. Stevens lathed thousands of decoys in several grades; some were so good that small-time carvers copied their models.

Regional characteristics developed according to local hunting conditions and are expressed in terms of species, materials, rigging methods, and painting styles. Sea ducking needed sturdy, oversized ocean decoys; hunters of the upper Delaware strove for finely painted realism as their low-slung scull boats let them get close to resting birds.

Until battery shooting was outlawed in 1935, market hunters pursued their canvasbacks and redheads from the aptly nicknamed “floating coffins,” mounted with a fixed heavy gun. Economies of scale required bringing down 200 to 500 birds, which demanded rigs of several hundred crudely carved and simply painted decoys.

The weight considerations of the Jersey coast’s little Barnegat Bay Sneakbox led carvers to hollow out their decoys, lightening them, making them ride higher in the water, and reducing the chance of splitting or warping. Either two body halves were hollowed out, then nailed together and caulked watertight, or a single-piece body was gouged out from below and the hole covered with thin wood or tarred canvas.

A carver’s tools are basic: a hand ax or a small hatchet, a drawknife, jackknife, spokeshave, rasp, drill, and sandpaper.

For bodies, carvers used cheap, locally available woods with some rot-resistance, such as white pine, cedar, cottonwood, and cypress, as well as fence posts, driftwood, and exotic woods scavenged from shipwrecks. Washed-up cork from life preservers and fishnet buoys was easily gathered on Long Island beaches. By 1850, local carvers preferred cork for black ducks because its color and texture after sanding and charring resembles feathering. Iron decoys doubled as stabilizing weights on the wings of sinkboxes.

The head and neck were carved separately, then doweled and glued into the body. The “uppers” of small-headed, short-billed birds like brant could be whittled from the roots or knotty branches of scrub pine, holly, or locust, earning such decoys the nickname “root-heads” or “knot-head.” These show great variety in their form, refinement, and ingenuity.

Before feathercoating with oil paint, carvers sealed the wood with linseed oil or white lead mixed with turpentine. Plumage patterns, made by flecking, scoring, stippling, and scratching with combs, were often regional and traditional and provided just enough key information to identify the species. Decoys were regularly repainted, sometimes into another species.

Market hunting and unregulated wildfowling are things of the past, like baymen and rafts of 250,000 scaup. Of the working decoy carvers that disappeared with them, aptly Mackey writes: “They are mostly honest and sincere people who live close to the haunts of wildfowl.”

Today, they are also icons of American folk art.

______________

Writing this piece brought back childhood memories to Brooke of clamming in Shinnecock Bay for $1 a bucket. “My digging buddy, Janis Savitt, is now a famous jewelry designer who sells at Bergdorf Goodman.” But, she says. “I’m still digging clams, only now in Brittany, France.”

 

 

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