An Overview of Wooden Cigar Store Indians
In many people's opinion, the wooden cigar store Indian is a stereotypically demeaning portrayal of the Native American. Since the 20th century, the cigar store Indian has become less common for a variety of reasons, such as sidewalk-obstruction laws, higher manufacturing costs, restrictions on tobacco advertising and increased racial sensitivity. For reasons like these, many of the hand-carved figures which were once ubiquitous have been shipped off to museums and antique shops around the country.
Yet the cigar store Indian can still be found outside and inside some cigar stores or tobacconists shops, but rarely without controversy. There are many people who see this wooden figure as racially offensive and as vulgar as the African American lawn jockey.
But Why a Wooden Indian?
Scholars have long debated how tobacco became such an important crop to the indigenous people of the Americas, and eventually to the world. All that is known for certain is that the Native people introduced tobacco to the early explorers, and the rest of tobacco's history centers on its use by Europeans.
In 1561 Jean Nicot (the namesake of nicotine) gave the tobacco plant the name Nicotiana. In 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh began to make pipe smoking popular in Great Britain. The cultivation and consumption of tobacco spread with each voyage of discovery from Europe to the new world. This period of discovery was not only exciting for adventurers, but for merchants. With commerce and trade came the arts, and with the arts came the birth of the three-dimensional wood carvings that would evolve from the a two-dimensional style and into the wooden statues that are commonly seen today.
Wood carvings, and wood sculptures, are one of the oldest and most widespread forms of natural art. This is mainly because of the abundance of wood, the softness and durability of wood, and the rather simple tools needed to carve wood.
It wasn't until 1617 when small wooden figures called "Virginie Men" were placed on tobacconist's countertops to represent various tobacco companies. These "Virginie Men" would be the archetypes of what would become the traditional Native American-style cigar store Indians. These wooden cigar Indians were called "Virginians," which was the local English term for Indians. Since the majority of the British craftsmen were unsure of what an indigenous person in the Americas looked like, original wooden "Virginians" were depicted as black men wearing headdresses and kilts made of tobacco leaves.
Here in America the model used for creating these wooden statues was quite the opposite from the folks across the Atlantic. Most of the early cigar store Indians that were carved in the Eastern seaboard or in the Midwest by North American artists were white men in native regalia. This was likely due to many of the craftsmen in these areas having never encountered a Native American.
The Heart Of American Consumerism
As time went by, so did the growth of the entrepreneurial spirit of the American small business owner. Some innovative tobacco sellers sought an unconventional image for their trade to set them apart from more established merchants. Just like a striped, spinning cylinder indicated a barber, and three gold balls indicated a pawnbroker, a the wooden Indian indicated a tobacco seller.
Traditional cigar store Indians were created in many forms. Craftsmen sculpted both male and female figures in either wood or cast iron. The choices ranged from from Indian chiefs, braves, princesses and Indian maidens, sometimes with papooses. Almost every one of these wood-carved creations displayed some form of tobacco in their hands or on their clothing.
Occasionally, the female figure was adorned with a headdress of tobacco leaves in place of feathers. Male figures were often dressed in the war bonnets of the Plains Indians. The American-made cigar store Indians were clothed in fringed buckskins, draped with blankets, decorated with feathered headdresses and sometimes shown holding tomahawks, bows, arrows or spears. Sadly, these generic cigar store Indians facial features rarely resembled members of any particular American Indian tribe.
What Was The Purpose Of The Cigar Store Indian?
cigar store Indians were designed to capture the attention of people walking by, as a kind of advertisement, informing the people that tobacco was sold inside. The lore surrounding the wooden Indian is said to be that the average smoker in America during the late 1800s couldn't read the words, "Tobacconist Shop." Thus, cigar store Indians were a necessary calling card for the tobacco shop business. As America quickly became a melting pot nation, bubbling over with people from diverse origins, the average 19th-century American resident lacked a shared common language. So, again, the sidewalk cigar store Indian became a vital symbol for business. Visual trade signs (remember the barber pole and pawn shop symbol?) became important stand-ins for the written sign posts that might have been unreadable to the many potential immigrant customers. So, largely out of necessity, but also because of its craftsmanship and style, the cigar store Indian is still famous today.
Today, the very best antique wooden cigar store Indian sculptures can fetch as much as $100,000.
The Skilled Craftsmen
America survived the depression, but many wooden cigar store Indians did not, being broken and burned as firewood. Some did survive and were sold into private collections. Many others slowly disappeared over the passage of time.
The value of these wooden effigies of a time gone by are rising like the cost of cigars themselves. The passion for cigars and related collectibles reached new heights with the 1990s cigar renaissance. Once again, the cigar store Indians became appreciated and highly coveted in America. The new era saw the likes of ladies and gentlemen enjoying a good cigar in the presence of an old wooden Indian.
The elegant cigar store Indians of the modern age were made by many sculptors, but some names have stood out over time.
Artists like the Skillin family, John Cromwell, Thomas Brooks, and Samuel Robb operated full time studios and employed a full-time staff of carvers and painters to meet the high production demands for their product.
Few artists used actual Native Americans as models. Thomas J. Brooks was famous for creating the "leaner," stylized wooden Indians. These rest their elbows on log posts, barrels, or oversized cigars. John Cromwell's trademark was a distinctive V-shaped headdress. French-Canadian sculptor Louis Jobin usually placed his Indians with the left arm at chest level holding a robe and grasping a bundle of cigars in the right hand.
Not all Cigar Store Indians were made by non-Native Americans, though. Possibly the most famous of the Native American wood carvers was Samuel Gallagher. Samuel took his employer's last name as his own, which was a Native American custom at the time. Samuel began carving cigar store Indians in the 1840s after most of his tribe, the Man-Dan, was killed by small pox. Samuel was away from the village at the time, and avoided the dreaded disease. His great, great grandson Frank is known to be one of approximately 12 full-blooded Man-Dan Indians still living. Frank now follows in his father's footsteps as a highly-skilled cigar store Indian artisan in his own right.