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Sidewalk Sculptures

Cigar-Store Indians Served as High-Profile Advertising Tools for Tobacconists
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

"...You who love the weed they call sweet,

Plug or fine cut, twist or leaf,
Go to Warrington's at Vall Street
There where stands the Indian Chief."

(From an advertisement from Seneca Falls, New York. Reprinted in Hunting Indians in a Taxi-Cab, by Kate Sanborn, 1911.)

A colorfully garish, wooden Indian chief flashes across the screen for a fleeting Hollywood second in Quentin Tarantino's recent film Pulp Fiction. Butch (actor Bruce Willis) has just escaped from a squalid makeshift torture chamber in the basement of an electronics shop. He helps himself to the keys to a motorcycle that belongs to one of the brutes who had gagged and tied him up. In the midst of his getaway, among the otherwise forgettable paraphernalia on the sidewalk fronting this bizarre store, the camera points to . . . a cigar-store Indian. Clearly this is no smoke shop (in the usual sense anyway). The Indian is yet another jolting, incongruous image in a film saturated with them. Somehow it suggests another time.

A slower-paced century ago, these sidewalk figures were designed to capture the attention of passersby, informing them that tobacco was sold inside. It is said that the average cigar smoker in America in the late 1800s couldn't read the words smoke shop or, for that matter, any other important outdoor signage. Melting pot that it was, nineteenth-century America lacked a common language, and so the ubiquitous cigar-store Indian was vital for business. Visual trade signs were essentially stand-ins for written signposts that might have been incomprehensible to potential customers, many of them immigrants. As a result, chiropodists (early-day podiatrists) displayed large white or gilt feet, teahouses had Chinamen to lure customers, and pharmacies used an oversized mortar and pestle as a sign of their calling. Locksmiths featured large keys, and pawnshops were known by three balls.

Mark Goldman, a New York tobacconist, wholesaler and cigar-store-figure collector/dealer, has one of the most extensive col-lections of these Indians, a kind of time-capsule sample of the thousands that were made in their heyday between 1850 and 1890. His downtown loft is inhabited by more than 60 cigar-store Indians, which coexist with whirligigs, weather vanes and larger-than-life carousel camels, turkeys and dragons. "I like these figures because they are functional, not purely decorative. They were commercial objects, created to sell something, to make money for someone," Goldman muses, pointing to his well-heeled tribe.

They are not accurate representations of any tribe. Most cigar-store Indians were carved in Eastern seaboard or Midwestern cities by artisans who might never have actually encountered a Native American; The figures look like white men in native garb. In seventeenth-century Europe, "Virginians" or "black boys" (the local renditions of Indians) were depicted as black men wearing headdresses and kilts made of tobacco leaves. The American-made figures were clothed in fringed buckskins, draped with blankets, decorated with feathered headdresses and sometimes shown brandishing tomahawks or bows and arrows. Their facial features more closely resembled members of the carvers' families than they did any particular American Indian physiognomy. George Horse Capture, deputy assistant director for cultural resources at the National Museum of the American Indian, regards them as total fantasy. "I don't think they ever tried to be at all culturally or historically accurate, and I don't take any cultural offense at them. You have to put it in context," he says.

American Indians were the original subjects for the tobacconist figures, because they had, after all, introduced Christopher Columbus and his crew to the sacred weed. The carvers sculpted Indian chiefs, braves, princesses and squaws, sometimes with papooses. Many of these displayed some form of tobacco in their hands or on their costumes. After the Indian became recognized as the standard smoke-shop symbol, certain tobacconists began using other figures to advertise their wares. Enter Turks and sultans associated with Turkish tobacco; Punch figures whose raised forefingers and lascivious leers beckoned you into the store; Scottish Highlanders (snuff-pinching Scotsmen clad in plumed bonnets, tartan sashes and kilts, first made in Europe in the 1700s for use as snuff-shop signs), and baseball players. The rarest of these were racetrack touts or dandies with jeering faces dressed in houndstooth coats and top hats--Jenny Linds and Captain Jinkses inspired by the popular Civil War song "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines."

This variety evolved for two reasons: economics and sociology.In true American entrepreneurial spirit, some innovative tobacco sellers sought unconventional images for their trade signs to set them apart from the more established merchants. At the same time, since the carvers were all competing among themselves for the tobacconists' business, each tried to outdo the other in originality, versatility and scope. Well-known artisans like John Cromwell, Thomas Brooks and Samuel Robb had shops, sometimes employing staff carvers and painters. They put out catalogues of their product lines and constantly updated and expanded them.

The archetypes developed by the carvers were popular cultural icons of sorts. Just as today Mighty Morphin Power Rangers turn up on everything from cereal boxes to T-shirts, in 1898, when Admiral George Dewey became a hero during the Spanish-American War, his image found its way onto keystones, plaques and cigar-store figures. When Charles Dickens introduced the colorfully costumed Dolly Varden in Barnaby Rudge, modelers immortalized her in wood.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Michael Hart — Chicago, IL, United States of America,  —  February 22, 2011 5:09pm ET

I realize this editorial was written nearly 16 years ago...but do you know of any sellers of Cigar Store Indians in Chicago (where I live)?


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