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History

The Genesis of Decoy Art
Canvasback by an unknown Native American
Female Mallard with young

The word decoy comes from the Dutch 'de koor' meaning 'the cage (or trap)' and relates to a method of harvesting wildfowl employed in Holland and first recorded in the seventeenth century. However, the origins of the carved decoy can be traced back to 1,000 A.D. The Native Americans had perfected a method of making decoys by binding reeds together in the shape of a duck and covering them with a skin of feathers to add realism. In an amazing discovery at Lovelock Cave in Nevada in 1924, a dozen immaculate Canvasback decoys were found by archaeologists. They were complete with anchor tether and it was clear that they had been used for hunting. The relics were dated at more than a thousand years old and are now preserved in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Merganser by Roger Williams
By the time the word 'decoy' was first part of the English idiom , British immigrants were starting to establish themselves on the east coast of America. There is evidence of a collaboration between the Native Americans and the British both in New England and Virginia. The settlers who survived probably owe their lives to the fact that joint hunting parties obtained food. The Native Americans provided the local knowledge and skills whilst the white man provide firearms. Perhaps the early settlers learned of the use of floating decoys from the natives and started to produce decoys from wood. The earliest wooden decoys have been attributed to Roger Williams of Long Island, New York. He carved from 1720 to 1820.

By the 1850's, America was booming. The railways had opened up the country and its vast resources, immigrants were pouring from Europe and the cities were growing rapidly. The hotels in all the major cities along the east coast were willing to pay good prices for seafood and wildfowl. This gave rise to the era of "market hunting". The market hunters made their own decoys or bought them from professional makers who made functional decoys which had to stand up to the rigours of bad weather and rough handling. At this time the only criteria of a decoy were that it was durable, effective and cheap. Some very fine decoys were made during this era, yet while a particular decoy might have been admired, it was not usually judged from the standpoint of artistic merit but by those three criteria. The days of artistic recognition were yet to dawn.

Scaup by Orel Leboeuf
Black duck by Albert Davids-Laing
Interestingly, like such things as Polynesian war clubs, shields from Kenya or Eskimo fishing spears, decoys did not have to be artistically made to work. Hunters knew that a beer bottle painted black would bring in the wildfowl if they are feeling curious. However, as most of the decoy carvers were skilled craftsmen like boat builders and cabinet makers, they took pride in their work. Consequently, the decoys they carved resembled the ducks they were hunting. Regional variations of style occurred within the four major north American migration routes; these being the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyways. This was a result of the varying environmental conditions found in these four regions and the type of water over which the ducks were being hunted. For example, for hunting over large rivers, where the water was choppy, the decoys were large, solid and were fitted with a keel. By contrast, marsh water decoys were hollow, light weight and smaller in size. Basic designs were also influenced by the religious and cultural ethics of each community. Hence, a dominant French-Catholic culture undoubtedly influenced the highly embellished decoy designs of Orel Leboeuf (1886-1968) who lived in Quebec. Whereas the Puritan values prevalent in Connecticut helped inspire the simple forms of the decoys carved by men such as Albert Davids-Laing (1811-1886) and Ben Holmes (1843-1912). Incidentally, it is Ben Holmes who is credited with having the first decoy exhibition. This took place in Philadelphia in 1876.

Labrador duck
Passenger Pidgeon by Chris Hindley
The wholesale slaughter of wildfowl during the second half of the nineteenth century led to a number of wildfowl species becoming scarce and the Labrador Duck and Passenger Pigeon becoming extinct. The American public began to show concern and this resulted in Congress passing the Migratory Bird Act Treaty in 1918, which effectively put an end to market hunting. Regulated private sporting clubs continued to exist for the wealthy and sometimes decoy carvers made birds for the visitors to such clubs. These were usually of birds from the patrons own region and were generally kept on the mantle piece rather than the hunting rig. However, during the depression years, hunting laws were relaxed slightly in order to enable the average man to shoot for the dining table. Consequently, a new generation of decoy carvers was born. The first decoy carving competition took place in Belport, New York in 1923. This continued the trend away from the original intentions of the decoy that has progressed to today. The competition was originated to examine and compare working lures, most of which required only a few hours to paint. However, encouraged by the competitive spirit of subsequent competitions, some carvers began to develop their decoys in a more artistic fashion.

Pintail drake by the Ward brothers
 Americam Widgeon drake by the Ward brothers
Two such carvers were the brothers Lem and Steve Ward From Crisfield, Maryland. They were born in the 1890's and ran a small barber shop in their town. Their passion was carving decoys and they made these in between doing haircuts. Interestingly, their customers did not seem to mind the wood shavings on the floor. In fact, they took a keen interest in the duck or goose decoys the brothers were carving. In time, word of the quality of the Ward decoys spread and visiting sportsmen started to visit their shop. These were industrialists and professional people and they tended to want ornaments rather than hunting lures. Consequently, any bird with a little extra detail; a turned head, a raised wing or some detailed painting was soon snapped up by these affluent collectors. By the late 1940's, the Ward brothers were well known and had won prizes at decoy shows in New York. As a result, more collectors began to commission work, generally preferring their decorative style. A feature of the Wards work was their constant experimenting with new designs for their decoys, whereas many decoy carvers used the same designs all their life. As the Ward brothers continued to gain recognition for their work, a new generation of carvers were inspired to carry on the the impetus of this new art form. In 1968, a group of Eastern Shore businessmen and decoy enthusiasts, founded The Ward Foundation. The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art was opened in Salisbury, Maryland in 1975.