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A Group of Wildfowl Decoys

Decoys are tools in a system of deception: by imitating nature, these lifelike carvings were made to lure birds into hunting grounds. Reassured by the appearance of a floating or standing flock, ducks, shorebirds, and other wildfowl could be fooled into thinking they were in a safe place.

 

For centuries, Native North Americans have fashioned decoys out of reeds and other organic materials. European-American settlers adopted the tool and developed their own methods for making birds. When hunting proliferated as a fashionable pastime, beginning in the mid-19th century, decoys became increasingly complex and took on a new sense of artistry. During their peak popularity up until the early 20th century, the market for decoys supported a number of accomplished makers, including some of those represented in this display, such as Augustus “Gus” Wilson, Anthony Elmer Crowell, Nathan Cobb, Jr., and Charles E. “Shang” Wheeler. Most carvers were male and many were hunters themselves, living in close relationship to the aquatic landscapes occupied by their wildfowl subjects.

 

The repetitive and replicative quality of decoy-carving allowed makers to hone their skills carefully, drawing upon nature as a model but also incorporating personal style. In the early 20th century, art collectors—including the first patrons of the American Folk Art Museum—were arrested by the beauty of such carvings and began to gather and display them as aesthetic objects. This group represents just a small selection from the Museum’s large holdings of wildfowl decoys, one of the most significant “collections within the collection.”