Craft History: Decoy Carving

Decoy Carving

Using decoys originated in the 1850s as a way to attract a large number of ducks to sell. Since markets in Norfolk, VA would pay $1.00 for each canvas back pair, 75 cents for each red head pair, and 25 to 50 cents for each pair of common ducks, hunters naturally wanted to catch more ducks to sell. Most hunters caught the common ducks because they were more plentiful, although they strived to catch the less common, more expensive birds. Before 1850, hunters began the tradition of tying decoys--actually live ducks at this time--to a stake in the middle of the river. Some craftsmen began the practice of carving duck decoys from wood. Because this new "duck statue" looked like a duck, other ducks approached it. However, because it was a woodcarving, craftsmen could imitate the appearance of the rarer ducks, and hunters could use more of these duck decoys because they didn't have to tie them to anything to keep them from escaping. In coastal North Carolina in the 19th and 20th centuries, duck hunting remained an important part of making a living. Because fishing seasoned around the spring and summer, coastal residents had to hunt in the winter to survive.

At the Cedar Banks Club in the Core Banks, sportsmen from Maryland introduced decoys to this part of the coast. A local man, Mitchel Fulcher, started a carving tradition as he taught local hunters how to carve their own decoys. Typical decoys of this region are angular, roughly finished and intended to withstand rough handling and to last for a few seasons.

Today wooden decoys have become more of an artistic expression, combining both function and the artistry of the carver.

Matchak, Stephen. The Wildfowl Decoy in North Carolina and Back Ball, Virginia. Doctoral Dissertation.