Larger Type
Smaller Type

Search Collections

Fish Decoy

ca. 1930s Unidentified (American) carved and painted wood, tinned and painted iron sheet metal, and lead weights 1 5/8 x 6 7/8 x 2 1/2 in. (4.2 x 17.6 x 6.2 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Alastair B. Martin 1999.67.1 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor, 28A

Luce Center Label

Carved fish decoys are one of the earliest forms of American folk art. Hunters around the Bering Sea first used small bone or ivory decoys for ice fishing around 1000 AD. They believed that the decoys embodied the innua, or inner spirit of the fish. The practice spread to upstate New York and the Great Lakes, where it became a tourist industry with many communities growing around prime fishing areas. Ice fishing was banned in 1905, however, because the popularity of the sport had brought about a serious decline in large game fish. During the Depression, many hunters and fishermen turned again to fish spearing for survival. The decoys from this period are simpler, focusing on realistic shapes, colors, and movement rather than fanciful decoration (Steven Michaan, American Fish Decoys, 2003).


Animal - fish


folk art

metal - iron

metal - lead