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Who Made that Sleeper?

Guest essay by Travis Bryant

There has always been a layer of uncertainty when determining who made any specific Stevens Sleeper Decoy. The current claim is that there is a mixture of Harvey/George decoys which, to date, has been based on the carving style and paint. This is commonly accepted among collectors, but I wanted to challenge this theory by evaluating the current known facts. I started this quest without a desire to prove the current theory wrong, but to help support it with more information. In the end I came up with a different conclusion all together. Lets begin with the facts:

  • There are only 43 recorded Stevens Sleeper model decoys.

  • Only 20 of the 43 recorded examples have original paint.

  • There are 17 Bluebills, 9 Redheads, 15 Goldeneyes, and 2 are unknown.

  • There are only 4 Tackeye Sleepers known to exist.

  • The first known Sleeper Pattern was created on April 17th 1881 by Harvey.

  • The second known Sleeper Pattern which is a duplicate of the first states that it was created in 1884 and is handwritten by Harvey.

  • The third known Sleeper Pattern was also made by Harvey, is larger, and states the date August 16, 1890.

  • The only known brand/stencil on a Sleeper Decoy is the H.A.Stevens Stencil indicating that George did not make any Sleepers after Harvey's death as all decoys were being marked at that period.

  • There are no Sleeper decoy orders referenced in George's Memo Book from 1895.

Hypothesis #1: All Tackeye Sleepers should be attributed to Harvey vs. George.

I wanted to start from the beginning and analyze the earliest Sleeper Sleeper Decoys to determine who their creator was. Reference Figures 1-4. There are four documented Tackeye Sleepers of which none have original paint. Three are bluebills/redhead repaints and one is a goldeneye. Although the species of each could be at question because of the repaint, this assumption is made by comparing the form to the later glass eyed variants. If you refer to these examples you will notice that they all contain the steep angle between the neck and hump on the back (Seen best in Figure 2). This is identified in Muller's book "Their Lives the Times and their Decoys" as being the main identifying factor when determining if a sleeper decoy is carved by Harvey or George. If you look at these examples and attempt to identify the maker, you will need to use the following facts:

Figure 1
Figure 2
  • There is not a single example of a George Stevens attributed Tackeye Standard (Paddle-Tail) decoy.

  • Harvey Stevens carved and painted ALL of the Tackeye Period decoys.

  • The neck/head style in Figure 1 is closely representative to the Harvey Stevens drake seen in Figure 3.

  • All of the Tackeye Sleepers that exist have the same form with the steep angle behind the neck, but you can see a slight change in form.

  • All of the Tackeye Sleepers that exist are repainted which prevents the paint from being attributed to any one carver.

Figure 3
  • George Stevens was not carving at a level of expertise to produce these decoys in the Tackeye Period.

  • The Form of the Sleeper Style decoys changed over the years, perhaps more than previously expected. (Significant difference in form between Tackeye Standard decoys and the Glass Eyed variant)

Figure 4

Conclusion #1: In conclusion, all of the evidence thus far suggests that these Tackeye Sleepers were NOT made by George Stevens and were actually made by Harvey Stevens.

Hypothesis #2: The Sleeper Style Harvey Stevens Decoys evolved over time and were actually all carved by Harvey.

We know that the Sleeper decoys evolved over time by looking at the different variations of the same species, but who actually carved these decoys. It is easy enough to tell the difference between a Harvey and George paddle-tail style decoy, but what about the sleepers. To answer this question I started to compare the form, paint, markings, brands, etc. of every known sleeper example and began connecting the dots. My findings when evaluating the glasseye period sleeper decoys were as follows:

  • We know that Harvey Stevens was making Sleeper Style decoys as early as 1881 by looking at the signed pattern which is photographed and referenced in: The Stevens BrothersTheir Lives, The Times and Their Decoys written by Dr. Peter J. Muller & Peggy Lane Muller.

  • You will see in the third row of pictures below that the Goldeneye Sleeper has an identical paint pattern as the George Stevens paddletail decoy. This proves that Goldeneye Sleeper was in fact carved and painted by George Stevens.

  • Both of the Harvey Stevens Redhead Drakes below are hand signed by Harvey Stevens himself so we know this form/paint identifies to Harvey.

  • The other two George Stevens attributed decoys below exhibit traits not seen on other Harvey decoys including the very high back with a nearly 90 degree pitch change from behind the neck to the tail.

  • There are no known sleeper decoys with a George Stevens brand indicating that Sleepers were not made after Harvey passed away in 1894.

Final Conclusion: George Stevens made very few Sleeper decoys and started during the Glasseye Period (1885-1891). This is not a surprise as there are no known George Tackeye Decoys. The previous assumption that the steep slope behind the head can be used to identify a George Sleeper is not entirely true. The attributed George Sleepers do have a steep slope behind the head, but so do some Harvey decoys. The evaluation needs to go further to look at the paint, head form, etc. I think the less refined decoys in the group are going to be the George Sleepers and it takes a very detailed evaluation of each decoy to determine this result. The best examples are hand signed by Harvey which clearly identifies his later form as some of these signatures are accompanied by the stencil which was thought to come into existence in 1891. I hope you will be able to use this information to correctly identify any Stevens Sleeper you might have! If you do have any, please pass a photo along so it can be added to the research database!

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