Intricately carved decoy ducks portraying such famous Delaware birds as the canvasback, the brant, and the mallard are today coveted by collectors worldwide.
The decoy duck industry began to develop in the early 19th century, in tandem with the appearance of the steamboat and the punt gun.
Market hunters, forever under financial pressure to bag as many ducks as possible in an outing, had been around since Delaware’s earliest years. But the birth of steamboat transport in 1797 gave food wholesalers the ability to more quickly ship fresh duck meats to Philadelphia and New York. And to fill that pipeline, a market hunter shooting a punt gun (an enormous shotgun often 8-10 feet long, with up to 2” bores) could take down 100 birds in one volley.
The demand for decoys took off. Market hunters needed ‘large spreads of fakes’, knowing they’d have to attract even larger flocks of real birds to stay competitive.
Bombay Hook, in central Delaware, is now and always has been a major bird migratory stop along the Atlantic coast. Because of that, it has attracted both market and recreational hunters for hundreds of years. The punt gun, the steamboat, and a sizable ‘rig’ of decoys made duck hunting so lucrative that both types of hunters streamed into Delaware from surrounding states in the first decades of the 1800s. With the king of ducks, the canvasback, fetching big money, a savvy hunter could turn a month’s worth of work into a year’s worth of riches.
The bird population was not sustainable in this situation. The brant, for example, appeared to be extinct by the end of the 1830s, though it did re-emerge four decades later, in much diminished numbers. The Delaware General Assembly was alarmed by the clear threat of multiple other game bird species being systematically wiped out. In 1839 it banned out-of-state hunters from exporting dead fowl shot in Delaware across state lines.
Local market hunters started to double down. They got longer punt guns. They paid closer attention to the quality of decoys available to them.
“In the ‘good old time’ a gunner could go on the marsh with a half dozen stools (decoys),” said the Middletown Transcript in March 1881, “which might be travesties on the original in both shape and color, and the gunner could lie on a bare ditch bank and kill his 20 ducks a day.
“Not so now. If a man wishes to make a good day he must be in a ducking box with twenty or thirty first rate stools.”
The era of the custom decoy carver was born.