August 2005

  This month This month Mike McLeod takes a look at Fish Decoys, Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors and Ancient Inventions.

Readers who would like to share interesting websites with Mike may contact him via email at

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1950s Augres Pike decoy.

This 1950s "folky" Sunfish has a cut-out mouth and painted tack eyes. The body is painted off-white and green, and is offered for $145.

This 5-1/2" crappie fish decoy, circa 1920, is rare in a Native American fish decoy. Found in northern Minnesota, the decoy has damage to the tail, and the top and bottom tips are missing. Offered for $115 at

(All photos, courtesy

Fish Decoys

Tim Spreck of Minnesota is an avid spear fisherman and fish decoy carver. He also owns, which is a good reference for this uncommon collectible. It features lots of photos of vintage and modern fish decoys. Click on "Online Collectable Fish Decoy Catalog" to be taken to a page listing ten categories of decoys and reference materials, each page having dozens of photos. Tim focuses mostly on decoys from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, but there are photos of old Native American fish decoys that are very interesting. Older decoys are usually crude in carving, obviously, since they were created to perform their function and not for art appraisers. Modern decoys, on the contrary, are often very colorful and more true to form.

Tim sells the decoys on his website, which gives you an idea of value ranges for them. For those still scratching their heads and wondering how fish decoys were used, has some historical information: "It was from the Indians of the Great Lakes and other Northern areas that the European and colonial travelers learned the use of decoys as tools for fishing through the ice…."

Then from a fur trader's journal of 1762: "In order to spear the trout under the ice, holes being first cut of two yards in circumference, cabins of about two feet in height built over them of small branches of trees and these further covered with skins so as to wholly exclude the light. The design and result of this contrivance is to render it practicable to discern objects in the water at a very considerable depth…. A spearhead of iron is fastened on a pole of about ten feet in length. This instrument is lowered into the water and the fisherman, lying upon his belly with his head under the cabin. He then lets down a figure of a fish carved in wood and filled with lead. Round the middle of the fish-effigy is tied a small packthread; when at the depth of ten fathoms, it is made, by drawing the string and by the simultaneous pressure of the water, to move forward after the manner of a real fish. Trout and other large fish, deceived by its resemblance, spring forward to seize it: but by a dexterous jerking of the string, it is instantly taken from their reach. The decoy is now drawn near to the surface and the fish takes some time to renew the attack, during which time, the spear is raised and held conveniently for striking. On the return of the fish, the spear is plunged into its back and, the spear being barbed, is drawn out of the water." Not being from a cold climate, I'd have to be starving to lie on ice to try to attract fish with a decoy before the invention of long johns and under armor.

Fish decoys are gaining in respect as collectibles these days as more people learn about them. Some are reasonably priced, but fish decoys are also included in the folk art category of collecting, and that is pushing prices way up for some.

The website lists information about 12 important carvers, details fakes and frauds, and has an interesting page on "Implements and Tools," such as ice saws, old painted bait buckets, spears and ice skimmers. These look like a large kitchen skimmer that you'd use to remove French fries from boiling oil. They were used to skim out chunks of ice after a hole is cut in the ice and to remove the ice that keeps forming on the surface of the water after the hole is cut.

Fish decoys are a collectible worth hooking up with, now, before prices go the way of duck decoys.


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Falls puzzle from the 1930s with 347 pieces, of which 101 are figurals, including the signature falling girl piece.

Other figurals in the puzzle are: 35 people (dancing couples, duelers, children playing with a ball, etc.), 26 cats, 19 geometric shapes, 7 dogs, 4 horses, 2 elephants, a mule, ostrich, rabbit, lamb, goat and eagle.

(Photo from Susan Marcell's collection.)

Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors

Puzzles date back to the mid-1700s when maps were pasted onto wood and then cut into pieces. First educational and then for entertainment, jigsaw puzzles have been popular since their creation, and today, vintage puzzles are captivating collectors.

The Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors (AGPC) is an international organization for game and puzzle collectors and game researchers. If you fall in one of those categories, you should bookmark this site. Members collect a wide variety of games, "…from colonial era card games to the latest fads, as well as related pastimes like tops, blocks, marbles, and toys." In addition to some great photos of members' collections, there are convention updates, game/puzzle news, several past issues of AGPC's newsletter, and a rules archive with instructions for 1,800+ games, especially pre-1951 games. Copies of instruction can be purchased ($1 for members; $4 for nonmembers). A sample of titles from the 1,800+ archived game instructions include: Auctioneer by Flanagan; Are You a Buffalo by Sears Roebuck; Safedart Target Game by Parker Bros. (thank goodness it isn't Lawn Darts); and the Stanley Africa Game by Bliss.

The photos of members' collections are delightful, especially the old jigsaw puzzles. Being only familiar with modern puzzles for children, it was interesting to learn that several early puzzle makers often made puzzle pieces in specific figural shapes, some as signature pieces. Falls Puzzles, for instance, always had a figure of a falling girl in the lower portion of the puzzle. When looking at older puzzles, it is easiest to see the figurals if you can turn the puzzle over and see the back. If the puzzle is still in the box, take several out and look for familiar shapes: animals, people, children, a donkey and cart, even men dueling.

There are several informative and interesting articles on the website, including one by Anne D. Williams, a jigsaw puzzle historian and author of Jigsaw Puzzles, An Illustrated History and Price Guide (1990). In talking about the popularity and intricacy of puzzles after the turn of the century, she writes: "The puzzles of those days were quite a challenge. Most had pieces cut exactly on the color lines. There were no transition pieces with two colors to signal, for example, that the brown area (roof) fit next to the blues (sky). A sneeze or a careless move could undo an evening's work because the pieces did not interlock. And, unlike children's puzzles, the adult puzzles had no guide picture on the box; if the title was vague or misleading, the true subject could remain a mystery until the last pieces were fitted into place. Because wood puzzles had to be cut one piece at a time, they were expensive. A 500-piece puzzle typically cost $5 in 1908, far beyond the means of the average worker who earned only $50 per month."

The AGPC offers a newsletter for members with up-to-date news of auctions, recent finds, personal collections and exhibitions, articles, a calendar of events, and information on game companies.

If you love puzzles and games, you'll spend a lot of time on this website - and enjoy it.


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This reproduction of the Baghdad Battery was created by by students Dennielle Downs and Ava Meyerhoff as part of the course work for the class. (Photos, courtesy Stan Sherer.)

This recreation Heron's self-moving stand shows the wheels and ropes used to move it on and off stage. It was created by student Shelia M. Kyte.

Ancient Inventions

Two things that are always interesting to me are the ancient world and inventions. A class on the History of Science at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, created a webpage for one of the course's requirements: finding and learning about an ancient invention and reproducing it. During the course, the students were required to go to a machine shop and build an ancient invention.

Here are a few of those surprising inventions:

  • Baghdad Battery. Believed to have been created between 250 BC and 250 AD, it actually generated electricity. It was found just outside the City of Baghdad and was created with a clay jar and an asphalt stopper with an iron rod inserted through it. Around the rod was a copper cylinder. When vinegar was poured into the jar, an electric charge of 1.1 volts was created. It is postulated that it may have been used to electroplate metal, such as gold, upon silver.

  • Moveable stand. Heron Alexandrius was a Greek mathematician, physicist and inventor. He created the first steam engine, which was a revolving ball powered, by two spouts, that caused the ball to spin from the release of steam. Heron also invented instruments for measuring distances, a fire extinguisher and toys that spurted water. On the webpage, Heron's moveable stand is featured. This was a device like a cabinet that would roll out onto stage by itself, move in different directions, open and close doors, display mechanical figures moving, light up small scenes or altars, and then roll back off stage - all of its own accord. Heron used weights on ropes, pulleys, wheels, and containers releasing sand through holes into containers and other methods to create the movement and effects desired. Some of his inventions made dozens of movements. History reports that some stands may have been as intricate as to depict a sea battle scene with moving waves and ships.

  • "Ship shaker." The Carthaginians used to ship shakers to keep the Roman navy at bay. This machine was a hook on a heavy rope that was attached to T-shaped beams over a city's sea wall. Attacking ships were hooked and lifted out of the water using oxen or horses that were harnessed to the rope. Then the ship was dropped back into the sea.

  • Roman forceps - no explanation necessary.

  • Keel crusher. This machine was submerged in shallow water near port cities to ward off pirate ships. The "…trigger mechanism is tripped by the hull of a ship, a counterweight is released downward, and a claw extends upward piercing or tearing the keel (hull) of the ship."
  • There are many more inventions on the website. Some you'll know, and others you won't. Seeing them makes me wish I could have taken this course at Smith College. Too bad it's an all-girl school.



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