Advertising Icons – The Wooden Indian
The Early Mad Men
The Wooden Indian is one of advertising’s oldest icons and has been associated with cigar stores and tobacco shops for centuries. But if you’re a 17th century wood sculptor, how do you carve something you’ve never seen? You might be surprised what they came up with.
The image of an American Indian has been associated with tobacco since the 17th century when the first tobacco leaves reached England and Europe. it’s not surprising those early shopkeepers took this close association of Indians and tobacco and settled on the wooden Indian as their symbol to identify them as sellers of the leaf.
Symbols were the principal means of advertising in the 17th and 18th centuries simply because most of the population was illiterate. But tobacco shops were in something of a quandary. Just what did an Indian look like? Very few Indians had been brought back to the “old world” and few people outside of royalty had actually seen one.
Early wooden Indians weren’t Indians at all
The fact that the wood sculptors had never seen an Indian did not stop them from creating an image to go with the name. They had not seen Indians but they had seen African slaves and they substituted the black man for the red man. Early statues resembled black slaves with headdresses of tobacco leaves.
Later as more “word” about Indians reached Europe the tobacco leaves were replaced with feathers and other exotic accouterments. These early black Indian sculptures were called Virginians in honor of the highest tobacco producing colony in the “new world”.
Another interesting point is most of the sculptures created during this time depicted females not males. Perhaps inspired by Pocahontas, the first Indian royalty to visit England, the female icons were much more popular than the male versions by a ratio of 4 to 1.
The Times They Are Changing
By the early 1800s there had been enough interaction between the white mn and the red man that the image for the wooden Indian became truly Indian. As time passed the design of the icon became almost universally male dressed in the clothes of a plains Indian and wearing a full war bonnet.
The wooden Indian grew in size as well, increasing from about two feet tall to life size. And they weren’t all wood either. Iron castings were made that created impressive and incredibly heavy displays. These advertising sculptures were normally displayed on the sidewalk in front of the tobacco store and that practice was part of the reason for their loss in popularity.
For nearly a century the plains chief clutching a handful of cigars while shielding his eyes with his other hand was the premier symbol of cigar stores and tobacco shops. But times change. Local ordinances that forbade obstructing sidewalks was the kiss of death for some but changes in cultural values and sensitivities doomed the wooden Indian to the same fate as the lawn jockey.
Today the icon is still used at some cigar stores (although most are now copies made of weatherproof resin) but you are more likely to find the real McCoy in antiques shops or advertising memorabilia collections. After a 400 year run this advertising icon has pretty much retired to the history books.