Our “Boxes, Buckets, and Toys” exhibit at the Hingham Heritage Museum has celebrated the craftsmanship of Hingham’s coopers and box and toymakers. Another area in which the woodworkers of Hingham excelled was the carving of duck and shorebird decoys, as well as decorative miniatures.
Life-like wooden decoys are used by duck and shorebird hunters to attract live birds: groups or “rigs” of wooden birds are set in or near the water to lure birds flying by to stop and join them. The coastal areas and freshwater ponds of the South Shore were popular shooting locations for both sportsmen and market gunners and making wooden decoys became a cottage industry at which a few local practitioners excelled.
The most famous of our local decoy artists was Joseph Whiting Lincoln (1859–1938), who lived and worked beside Accord Pond on the Hingham-Rockland border. After working in a shoe factory, Lincoln undertook a variety of occupations before settling into a career as a decoy carver in the 1870s. In what had been his uncle’s cooperage, Lincoln created decoys that were shipped all over the East Coast and are highly sought after today for their artistry. This “no nonsense” Yankee made some miniatures, almost always in decoy style, but generally referred to his miniature carvings as “toys.”
Elisha Burr (1839-1909), a box maker whose Civil War canteens and woodenware are collectibles today, and his son Russ Burr (1887-1955), were also well-known decoy artists. Like Lincoln’s, their work is highly sought after by collectors today. Russ Burr is also well known for his miniatures, two of which are on display in the Kelly Gallery at the Hingham Heritage Museum.
Alston “Shorty” Burr (1910-1979), Russ Burr’s nephew, continued the family carving tradition using his Uncle Russ’ patterns for avian miniatures. Two of Shorty’s miniatures, similar but cruder than his uncle’s, are also on display in the Kelly Gallery.
There is much to appreciate in these bird carvings, whether considered as hunting tools or one of the few purely American art forms. According to Bob Mosher, a contemporary Hingham carver and decoy historian, the difference between Lincoln and Burr decoys is instructive. Lincoln made “working birds”—even his miniatures were made as little decoys, and his work is simple and impressionistic. Burr’s style, on the other hand, is more detailed and “busy,” creating an “active, alive” carving.