The distinctive style of coastal New Jersey decoys was shaped by the method of hunting used in the area. The sneak box was used as the primary type of gunning boat. A sneak box was a small boat about 12 feet long and 4 feet wide, built low to the water for one gunner. It could be rowed or sailed and was used as a floating blind by placing marsh vegetation on the barely emergent deck. It had a low fence of boards around the stern where the decoys were stowed.
According to Kenneth L. Gosner, author of “Working Decoys of the Jersey Coast and Delaware Valley,” the small size of the boats influenced the design of the decoys, i.e. the decoys are hollow to save on weight in these small boats. The size of rigs varied, but a typical rig consisted of about 40 decoys, making this an important consideration. Also, a typical New Jersey decoy weighed only about half of its solid body counterparts.
The decoy bodies were made out of two slabs of cedar temporarily attached together, top to bottom, and carved to shape. They were then taken apart and the insides were hollowed out with a custom made adz; the thickness of the walls was about ½ inch. The slabs were nailed together and the seam caulked. Typically, for a New Jersey decoy, the head was attached to a platform carved on the body for the head and neck using nails. But attachments varied; sometimes a dowel was driven through the head into the body and sometimes a screw was driven up through the top slab into the head before the body was put together.
Notice the area of attachment of the head to the body on this female Scaup by H.V. Shourds. The horizontal line where the two body halves are joined is obvious.
The New Jersey decoys tend to be stylized with minimal carving and little diversity of pose. Usually, painting consisted of simple planes of color, including field marks. The body was typically rounded in cross section but varied to almost flat on the bottom. As with larger differences in design that distinguish regions of decoy making from one another (see Identification of Decoys by Region) there are smaller local differences that make up the various “schools” of decoy carving. Centers for these schools in New Jersey include Barnegat, Head of the Bay, Tuckerton and Parkertown, Atlantic and Cape May counties. For more in-depth discussion of these local regional styles and the carvers who lived and worked there, see “Working Decoys of the Jersey Coast and Delaware Valley.”
A Blackduck by Jess Birdsall shows the typical New Jersey, Barnegat style. It sold in November of 2007 at Guyette and Schmidt auction for 350. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.
One maker known for his excellent interpretation of the simple lines of the New Jersey decoy is Harry Vinuckson Shourds (1861-1920). He was a professional decoy maker and bayman out of Tuckerton, N.J. and was quite prolific. He sold his decoys to the south to gunning camps in the Carolinas as well as up the coast to the north, so that the hollow decoy was well known. The crown of the head on his duck decoys rose to a higher peak than those of many other New Jersey carvers, which makes for an easy way to indentify his decoys. His son, H.M. Shourds, also carved decoys very similar to his father. The best way to tell these two apart is to look head on at the decoy; the head and neck on H.V. Shourds decoys are thicker and sturdier. He also made shorebird decoys.
A head-on view of the female Scaup shows the sturdiness of the head and neck.
There is a fun anecdote about Shourds that demonstrates his skill and speed in carving decoys. When he went for a haircut he took a band-sawed head blank with him. While the barber worked on him, he carved the head under the bib. When the barber was done he had a finished head ready to go.
This shows the redhead drake that realized $900 at the July 2009 Guyette and Schmidt auction. It is described a having a chip on tail and crack through the neck, as well as considerable wear to the paint. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.
This shows the exceptional redhead drake that realized $24,500 at the November 2007 Guyette and Schmidt auction. The only condition issue mentioned is slight wear to the original paint. “It has excellent paint tone and patina.” Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.
As to value, the July 2009 Guyette and Schmidt auction had only two decoys by H.V. Shourds for sale, a redhead drake and a black-bellied plover. (Shourds’ grandson is also named H.V. Shourds, but I am not discussing contemporary carvers at this time). The redhead drake, with some minor condition issues, realized $900 ay auction. To illustrate the importance of condition, in 2007 a redhead drake described as exceptional realized $24,500. The black-bellied plover, also with condition issues, in July realized $900. Last year in April, a Shourds black-bellied plover in excellent condition realized $3,850.
Another trend that is very apparent is that there are fewer H.V. Shourds decoys coming up for auction. For example, in April 2001 there were nine decoys in the auction, in contrast to the two in July 2009.
There are other highly collectable decoy carvers from New Jersey, including Jesse Birdsall, H.M. Shourds, Nathan Rowley Horner, Lloyd Parker, and many others. New Jersey decoys are so attractive, with simple lines and stylized paint patterns, they make a classic addition to any collection or decorating scheme.
Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.
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