In the early 1900s the Mason Decoy Factory (1896–1924) of Detroit, Michigan, advertised themselves as the “Largest Manufacturers Of High Grade Decoys In The World!” Founder William James Mason (mid-1800s–1905) and his successors would be pleased to learn that their quest for quality is still recognized in today’s marketplace. The current record price —$354,500—for a factory decoy was set by a Mason Premier wood duck drake (Fig. 1) in January 2000. This is ten times more than current prices realized for any other factory decoy, and substantially more than its original selling price of $1.
William James Mason emigrated with his parents and siblings to Detroit from Ireland in the mid-1850s. His first recorded position was in 1872 as a clerk at the John E. Long Sporting Goods Company. Mason loved the sporting life and soon became an avid hunter, joining in the enthusiasm for hunting and the outdoors that was part of the social culture in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He turned his avocation into a business, founding a sporting goods company in 1882 that he named the W. J. Mason Company. The business failed in 1888 and it is believed that Mason began producing handmade decoys within the same year, investing his realistically detailed decoys with his intimate knowledge of the physical features and plumage patterns of the ducks, geese, and shorebirds that he observed around the marshes of Lake St. Clair. Mason was like other hunters at the time who handcrafted decoys for their personal use and some for resale, though the rise of decoy factories in the late 1800s also presented the option to acquire ready-made decoys.
Mason recognized the commercial potential in decoys and, though he continued to make a limited number of handcrafted birds, by 1896 his production focused on those made for other hunters. By 1903 Mason had purchased a pattern lathe to produce rough blanks of his decoy bodies. He now employed about half a dozen finishers who continued to apply the paint by hand.
Mason’s designs and decoration were influenced by previous commercial decoy makers that had operated in Detroit: The George Peterson Decoy Company (1873–1884) and its successor the J. N. Dodge Decoy Company (1884–1894). Mason adopted many of the characteristics of the early Peterson decoys such as brush-swirl painting, a scalloped breast pattern, and head and bill carving detail. The early handcrafted “slope-breasted” style of Mason decoys (Fig. 2) was directly influenced by examples from Peterson.
In 1903, Mason’s son, Herbert, joined the company. It was at this point that the company became a nationwide commercial operation. Lathes, band saws, and sanders were installed, and skilled painters, most likely from the defunct Peterson and Dodge factories, were hired. Herbert increasingly ran the company, using his father’s decoy carving and paint patterns. With the passing of his father in 1905, Herbert proved to be an astute businessman and increased profits through advertising.
Herbert Mason also sought to expand the company by broadening its market share. He did this by adding a less expensive “Standard Grade” decoy model to the existing Premier and Challenge Grades. Unlike the original models, this grade had three price levels determined by the decoy’s eyes: glass, tack, or painted (see price list). The Mason Company offered a wide variety in all grades of ducks and shorebirds as well as geese, brant, crows, doves, and swans, only discontinuing its line of shorebird decoys when the hunting of shorebirds was outlawed by the Federal Migratory Waterfowl Act of 1918.
While the decoy business prospered, it remained seasonal. In 1919, Herbert Mason and a friend formed the Rinshed-Mason Company and became the largest paint supplier to the growing automotive industry. (The company survives today as BASF’s Inmont Division’s R-M® high quality line of automotive paints.) With this venture becoming more profitable, Herbert sold the decoy business to the Pratt Company of Joliet, Illinois, in 1924. They continued the business until 1939, when owner William E. Pratt died and the company was sold to the Animal Trap Decoy Company of Lititz, Pennsylvania, who continued production until the 1960s.
A price list, circa 1905:
Premier model (hollow) $12.00 per doz.
Challenge model (hollow) $ 8.00 per doz.
Challenge model (solid) $ 6.50 per doz.
Glasseye $ 5.50 per doz.
Tackeye $ 4.75 per doz.
Painted Eye $ 4.00 per doz.
Glasseye Snipe Shorebirds $ 5.00 per doz.
Tackeye Snipe Shorebirds $ 3.75 per doz.
A Collector’s Guide to Value and Restoration
A Mason decoy’s value is determined by its rarity weighed against its degree of originality. While collectors should strive to purchase decoys in the best original condition they can afford, remember that they were tools designed to lure waterfowl to hunters, and thus suffered wear and damage and were frequently repainted (Fig. 6).
Masons in the best original condition have proven the best values.
A Mason that has been repainted is worth significantly less than one with its original paint, even if worn.
Mason Premiers are usually worth a bit more than Challenges, while Challenges are worth more than Standard Grades. Within Standards, Glasseyes are worth more than Tackeyes and Tackeyes more than Painted Eyes. However, a scarcity of certain Painted Eyes can make them worth more than comparable Tackeyes and Glasseyes.
Some professional restoration is acceptable and perhaps preferable to most collectors as long as the seller has made it known prior to purchase. A decoy with a tail chip or missing neck filler, but in otherwise original condition, can be restored to its original appearance by competent professionals. Most of today’s collectors prefer this approach.
Mason’s Grading System
Mason’s Premiers were the highest grade decoy offered by the company (Fig. 3). They are characterized by a carved notch on the top of the bill and scored outlines that separate the bill from the face, and by a “nail” incised on the end of the bill. Premiers are generally flat-bottomed, which means they rock to a lesser extent when in the water than do round-bottomed decoys, thus offering a more realistic representation of the action of live ducks. To make them lightweight for transporting, Premiers were hollow.
Mason assigned its best painters to its Premiers, resulting in natural looking intricate details and colors appropriate to specific species. The decorators were taught to apply their paint in circular swirls to simulate the iridescence of feathers.
Mason’s next best offering was its Challenge Grade (Fig. 4). Similar in style to the Premiers, these decoys tend to be a bit smaller, generally solid bodied, with a smooth face and bill (no notch). The “nail” on the end of the bill is painted, not incised. Challenge decoys are mostly round-bottomed. Paint patterns remain fancy, but there is less blending and more blocks of solid colors.
After 1905, Mason began to offer its least expensive and most popular line—its Standard Grade (Figs. 5a–c). This grade was available in three varieties characterized by the differences in their eyes. Sold by mail order companies like Sears and Roebuck, these decoys are almost always solid. Bodies were turned on a lathe with little carving detail, and where head and body did not meet, neck putty was added and painted over to match. No bill delineation was used beyond contrasting paint patterns. Standards were round-bottomed; Glasseye and Tackeye models were fatter than Painted Eyes.
For those who may shy away from a factory connotation, here are five good reasons to collect Masons:
Quality — Most collectors believe that Mason decoys are every bit as collectible as handmade decoys. In fact, the factory connotation is unfair. Though more people were involved in their production, Masons were largely made by hand. Their hand-painted detail can rival that of the best decoys by individual makers (Fig. 7).
Availability — More Masons were made than any other decoy. Therefore, collectors have a much better chance of finding a really good example.
Affordability — Greater availability reduces rarity and in turn helps to hold down prices. Masons are still one of the best buys in decoys. Today, $500 or so will buy an excellent original condition Standard Grade example, while $1,000 to $2,000 will buy a superb Challenge or Premier Grade. Very few decoys by other classic makers can be purchased for comparable amounts.
Saleability — There are more Mason collectors than any other kind of decoy collector. Therefore there will always be collectors buying and selling to upgrade, resulting in a fluid market.
Value — Because of their wide appeal, Masons have steadily increased in value, whereas prices for many other makers, while growing, have continually fluctuated.
With his wife, Karen, Russ Goldberger is the owner of Russ and Karen Goldberger/RJG Antiques in Rye, New Hampshire. They specialize in American antiques, folk art, and decoys. Russ is co-author of the newly published Mason Decoys: A Complete Pictorial Guide, Expanded Edition (2003), which can be purchased for $63.95 by visiting www.rjgantiques.com, calling 603.433.1770, or writing to RJG Antiques P.O. Box 60, Rye, N.H. 03870.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a digitized version of which is available at afamag.com. InCollect.com is a division of Antiques & Fine Art, AFAnews, and AFA Publishing.