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Wooden Cigar Store Indians
The Art Of Controvesy
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. Committing many of these hand-carved figures to museums and antique shops.
The cigar store Indian can still be found outside and inside some cigar stores or tobacconists shops. There are people who equate this wooden figure as racially offensive and insensitive. In fact many view the cigar store Indian as offensive, and as vulgar as another ornament; the African American lawn jockey. Yes, it's true, both of these figures are still being made and for sale to puchase.
...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... The Native people introduced tobacco to the early explorers. In 1561 Jean Nicot (namesake of nicotine) gave the tobacco plant the name, Nicotiana. Man talk about an ego. 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 commerce and trade. With commerce and trade... along follows art. With art, came the birth of the three-dimensional wood carvings that would evolve from the two-dimensional style hanging signs, into the statues more commonly seen today.
Wood carvings, and wood sculptures, are one of the oldest and most widespread forms of natural art. Mainly because of the plentiful abundence of materials, ease to work with, the simplicity of tools, and let's face it... wood is durable. Wood carving has been practiced in almost every culture from practically the beginning of time. It's no surpise that developing agriculture and woodcarving almost go hand in hand.
It wasn't really 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 to what would be the traditional Native American styled Cigar Store Indians. These wooden Cigar Indians were called "Virginians," which was the local English term for Indians. Since the majority of the Brittish carftsmen were unsure 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. More than likely this was due to many of the craftsmen in these areas probably 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 the striped barber pole, and the three gold balls symbolized the pawnbroker... a new market icon sprang up, Cigar Store Indian. Artisan woodcarvers for the business of tobacconists. The craftsmen attempted a wide range of Cigar Store Indians. Many of these wooden figures absolutely astounding, and the "one-upmenship" gave the figures character, individuality, versatility and depth. Traditional Cigar Store Indians were created in many forms. Sculpted were both Male and Female cigar store Indians in either wood or cast iron. There were so many choices from Indian chiefs, braves, to princesses and indian maidens, sometimes with papooses. Almost every one of these wood craved creations displayed some form of tobacco in their hands or on their clothing. At one time the female cigar store Indian were so popular, that they out sold the male version at roughly 4 to 1.
Occasionally, the female figure was adorned with a headdress of tobacco leaves in place of the more standard 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 or bows, arrows and 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 that the average cigar smoker in America during the late 1800s couldn't read the words "Tobacconist Shop". So the Cigar Store Indians was 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 nineteenth-century American resident lacked a shared common language; so then 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 due out of necessity, but because of its craftsmenship and style, the Cigar Store Indian is still famous today.
Now a days, selling the very best of the antique wooden Cigar Store Indian sculptures, can fetch as much as $100,000 .
The Skilled Craftsmen
America survived the depression, but many of wooden Cigar Store Indians did not, they were broken and burned as firewood. Some did survive and were sold into private collections, many just slowly disappeared.
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. Born again was the return of a tradition. The new era saw the likes of ladies and gentlemen enjoying a good cigar in the presence of an old wooden Indian, an elegant friend was reborn and appreciated by all segments of society.
The elegant Cigar Store Indians were made by many Sculptors, but some names have stood out over time more so than others. Cigar Store Indian 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 Cigar Store Indian product.
Few artists used Native Americans as models. Thomas J. Brooks was famous for creating the "leaner," stylized wooden Indians; Which were resting their elbows on log posts, barrels, or oversized cigars. John Cromwell's trademark was a distinctive V-shaped headdress. French Canadian Louis Jobin usually placed his Cigar Store Indians with the left arm at chest level holding a robe and grasping a bundle of cigars in the right hand.
Simeon Skillin, 1716-78, is considered to be America's first sculptor. He received important commissions, primarily for ship carvings, but also for shop signs and portrait busts. Most notable was the workshop established by John Skillin, 1747-1800, and Simeon Skillin, Jr., 1757-1806, which enjoyed a nationwide attention. The family's works influenced the style of wood carving in the United States.
The man who made more Statues and probabily became the most well known of all Sculptors was Samuel Anderson Robb. He laid the ground work for success that lasted 60 years, from 1864-1924.
After his first wife died, Sam began fashioning sweet-faced Indian Maidens holding roses similar to the kind he designed for his wife's tombstone.
Not all Cigar Store Indians were made by non-Native Americans. Possibly the most famous of the Native American wood carvers; when it comes to Cigar Store Indians 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 were killed. The Man-Dan village was infected by smallpox - it practically wiped out the entire tribe. Samuel however, was away from the village at the time, and was spared the dread disease. His great, great grandson Frank is known to be one of approximately 12 true full-blooded Man-Dan Indians still living. Frank, follows in his ancestor's footsteps. He is a highly skilled artesian in his own right. What is his art? Frank follows the family craft and creates Cigar Store Indians.
One of the original Wooden Indians on display in the Smithsonian Institute is a Samuel Gallagher piece. The Gallaghers continue the art of carving as their ancestor would want it; the old way - the right way - by hand, using Aspen wood from Colorado is the preferred raw material. A copy of Arizona Highways magazine accompanies each one of Frank Gallagher's sculptures. The magazine has a two page story highlighting the Gallagher family.
The Cigar Store Indian is a figure loaded with contradictions. Images of the Native Americans, when the first people introduced tobacco to the English settlers, forever connecting the Native American people to the tobacco plant.
By the late 19th century the indigenous people of North America were no longer the actual source of tobacco. Tobacco in North America was being raised on the backs of hard labor.