An Overview of Wooden Cigar Store Indians

Updated on April 30, 2018
Wooden Indian in front of a tobacco store.
Wooden Indian in front of a tobacco store. | Source

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.

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  • profile image

    garybrew01 

    5 years ago

    Great article.

    I recently purchased an "R Gallagher" Cigar Store Wood Indian from an estate sale, I would like to know how R Gallagher is related to Samuel Gallagher and any other information you can send. Thank you very much!

  • tcokntx profile image

    tcokntx 

    6 years ago from Texas

    I'm interested in learning about the Colorado artiest R. Gallagher. I have a cigar store wooden indian he did and I'd like to see other work by him. Thanks for any info. you send.

  • profile image

    srinivas rao.T 

    6 years ago

    great work for today's youngesters brain work. really awesome facts about tobacco, and the history and culture of it,really and one of the most productive knowledge which i prefer to remember ever---thanks a lot**

  • profile image

    csiguy 

    7 years ago

    For a (free)appraisal, contact Mark Goldman who has the largest collection of genuine cigar store indians in the United States. He is also looking to buy such pieces. Take a look at Mark's website and you will be amazed at the size and quality of his collection. Note that the vast majority of cigar store Indians extant are not actually authentic.Website is:

    markscigarstoreindians.com/collections.html

  • profile image

    R Greenwood 

    7 years ago

    We have a hand carved wooden indian about 6 feet tall we are trying to find out how old he is we got him years ago but the carver is C Hoitt it is caved in his butt it is a gorges indian the feathers are all hand done I fell he is of indian oragin and I would love to talk to his family about him. I think it was carved in New Hampshire years and years ago. I would like to insurance put on it but I am not sure for how much.

    If any one know please e-mail me at ponygirl47@juno.com

  • profile image

    Lisa Ocampo 

    7 years ago

    It's always entertaining to me that it usually isn't people from the race that is offended as much as classic white Americans are for them. Really these are beautiful works of iconic Americana art, that my family has been collecting for decades. We are "Indians" (that doesn't offend us either. Cherokee, maiden name Fur. One more comment-I did enjoy your website and your thoughts. I do think that the wooden Indians were used to visually announce "tobacco shop" to the non-english speaking immigrants as well as the "iliterate cigar smokers" as you put it.

  • profile image

    blonde 

    7 years ago

    i have an original cigar indian my late grandad left it me it has been in our family for over 100 years i was wondering how i would get a valuation on it for insurance purposes

  • profile image

    Paul  

    7 years ago

    I'm native American and think these are great piece of art. Especially the well carved versions. They were created in a time when our country was young. If you think of them for their artistic value, they are beautiful. When you become entrenched in political correctness you lose some of the beauty of our society.

  • profile image

    Gil 

    8 years ago

    Does anyone know who is considered today's "best" craftsman / artist of wooden cigar store Indians?

    gilaqua@aol.com

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you JJ, but its more research then knowing.

  • profile image

    jjrubio 

    9 years ago

    That is so cool! You know so much! Good Hub!

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    It's a strange path to follow... that brain of yours Dink. But I do so enjoy the journey.

  • Dink96 profile image

    Dink96 

    9 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

    Thank you for yet again elucidating the reader on a rare piece of Americana. As I was reading this, I was struck by a thought that perhaps these Cigar Store Indians ("CSI") were the seminal vestiges of intellectual property, i.e., trademarks, and the like......when you extrapolate on the various meanings of the CSI, their later connotation, how they developed a specific "branding" with the consumer, etc. You know how my brain wanders....but I think you follow.

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you Barbara... As always your comments are very much appreciated.

  • profile image

    BarbaraHall20 

    9 years ago from Aiken, SC

    Hi! Awesome story! I especially like the pictures. Great job! @_@

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you Elegantwork23!

    I am sometimes curious how odd things become part of the the life landscape.

  • Elegantwork23 profile image

    Elegantwork23 

    9 years ago

    Excellent piece of work! Fantastic to find all of this info in one place.

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    G-Ma, Sounds like you have a nice bit of Americana in your neck of the woods.

    As always, it is soo good to hear from you.

    Take Care,

  • G-Ma Johnson profile image

    Merle Ann Johnson 

    9 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

    Wowee was so interesting and I learned a lot...always loved the carving in wood...the totem poles are also beautiful...we have many here where I live...cuz we have many Indians here...We also have a barber here that still uses the striped red and white glass thing that hangs outside the shop...not the actual pole...Nice to see some survived...Thanks dear...G-Ma :O) Hugs & Peace

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you Dolores for stopping by.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    9 years ago from East Coast, United States

    thanks for sharing these beautiful photos

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you C.C. The wooden Indians can be worth quite a lot. I do really like the old carousel horses, which can be quite pricy.

    Quicksand it's always a pleasure to see that you've stopped buy... If I smoked, I'd sit and light-up with you.

  • quicksand profile image

    quicksand 

    9 years ago

    Ugh! Big Chief Saint James write plenty good article - now we smoke peace pipe.

    :)

  • profile image

    C. C. Riter 

    9 years ago

    Great hub and very interesting. Seems as tho' they're getting to be like the old carousel horses huh? very collectible

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you Suzanne, Brian, and Julie-Ann. I did attempt to balance between the racial issue, and the artisan factor. The cigar store Indian walks a line between artful beauty and offensive stereotyping.

  • Julie-Ann Amos profile image

    Julie-Ann Amos 

    9 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

    Fantastic hub! I saw one of these in New York near Mohonk and rather naively didn't know what it was - I do now!

  • BrianS profile image

    Brian Stephens 

    9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

    Good research on an interesting subject and another example of where racial issues were not really considered so much before we entered the politically correct world we live in today. Hope no one tries to use this as evidence to sue the Native Americans for getting us all hooked on smoking (oh and sue was not a pun).

  • justmesuzanne profile image

    justmesuzanne 

    9 years ago from Texas

    Interesting points and nice photos! Thanks! :D

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    True. Regardless of your views upon the stereotype. If you take the time to look at the craftsmenship, and the artistic value. You can still appreciate someone's skill and hard work in their craft.

  • goldentoad profile image

    goldentoad 

    9 years ago from Free and running....

    I think the wooden Indians can sometimes be really something special. I'm not a cigar man, but occasionally I visit a certain "shop" where the sell "tobacco" products and there is a nice carving outside and I think they're cool.

  • St.James profile imageAUTHOR

    St.James 

    9 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you Rochelle. I feel like I put a lot of wrench-time into my writing. So it does feel go to be recognized.

  • Rochelle Frank profile image

    Rochelle Frank 

    9 years ago from California Gold Country

    Interesting, and nice bit of research.

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