From Heads to Tails

Guest essay by collector Mark Malys.

Stevens Decoys
Mark Malys collection (in part).

Being a passionate decoy collector, I am constantly admiring, appreciating, and critiquing my decoys. I began collecting Stevens Decoys early on in my collecting career, and that interest has exponentially increased over the years. Recently, I began to question why there are so few Stevens paddle-tail decoys with broken bills or tails. I have recounted the many Stevens decoys that I own, sold, and have handled at friends homes and at shows. I have also reviewed hundreds of photos and descriptions in the Stevens Decoy Database.

So why then, does it seem like Stevens paddle-tail decoys, have a low percentage of broken and/or repaired bills? My theory lies with the unique head attachment that Harvey Stevens developed in the 1870’s. The paddle-tails have a countersunk wood screw through the head and neck, which allows the head to be removed for storage or to vary the head position in a decoy spread. Within this method of attachment, I believe lies the reason for preventing a broken bill. Since the heads screw on clockwise, a force or impact to the right side of the bill or head, could partially unscrew and loosen the head, reducing the force to the bill and thus preventing a damaged bill. So if a decoy was thrown into a pile of decoys or landed on a hard surface, it would have a 50% chance of potentially unscrewing and protecting the bill. If the force was from the left, it still may protect the bill to some degree as the screw would have “some give” to help protect the bill from damage. I am not sure if Harvey thought about this in his design or may have realized it afterwards? But it is an innovative design feature that I believe helped protect the bills on those beautiful paddle-tails!

Now on to the tails. I also began to wonder why there are not more Stevens Standard Decoys (commonly called paddle-tail decoys) with broken tails? At first glance, the tails appear rather fragile. The tails on the glass-eye paddle-tails have been described as “pumpkin seed” in shape. Viewed from the top, the tails are thicker in the center, and flair out thinner towards the sides, then become thicker at the end. What's notable, once again - after handling and viewing numerous birds, is how relatively few Stevens paddle-tail decoys have broken or damaged tails. Those few decoys with tail damage, have just minor chips in them. Of the paddle-tails in my collection, the tails measure from 1.25 inches to 3 inches in length. When comparing the tail length/body length ratio, the decoys range from 11% to 21%, with the majority of decoys in the 17%-21% range. That makes the tails around 1/5 of the total body length and yet so few tails were damaged during rugged service! Harvey’s original design and attention to detail, and George’s continuation of this design, has definitely helped preserve the “Iconic” form of their unique "Standard" Decoys.

Copyright 2022. Mark Malys

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