Cigar-Store Indians Served as High-Profile Advertising Tools for Tobacconists
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95
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Likenesses were made of either wood or metal and were ordinarily life-size or larger. Almost all the wooden ones were cut from white-pine logs, frequently from old ship spars or recycled railroad ties. Many of the sculptors had begun as ship carvers, making figureheads and stern boards. When the wooden ship was displaced by the steamship, they shifted to tobacco icons.
First conceived in 1868 by the New York smoke-shop supplier William Demuth, the metal figures were usually cast in zinc. They were more durable than their wooden relatives; the metal didn't chink or crack in extreme temperatures. They could be left out in all kinds of weather. They also kept their form longer because, unlike wood, the metal didn't chip or erode. Finally, their heavier weight made them less vulnerable to theft. Because the metal ones were cast from molds, each figure made from a given mold was identical in form. Each wooden Indian was singular; it was one of a kind and could be customized to a certain extent.
Both metal and wood sculptures were hand painted, which allowed for a certain amount of artistic license. The metal models were more expensive to produce (zinc was costlier than wood, and a wooden model had to be carved first to make a casting mold). As a result, metal figures cost more in their day. In an article published in August 1890 in The New York Times, Frank Weitenkampf states, "The price of these figures varies greatly. You can get a small Indian for $16, or you can indulge your artistic taste up to the tune of $125. Metal figures run up as high as $175."
These days the best of the wooden sculptures sell for as much as $100,000. Despite the fact that fewer in metal have survived and are thus rarer, they sell for significantly less than their counterparts in wood--$50,000 is top dollar for a metal figure. While prices have soared in the past 10 years, prior to the 1950s cigar-store Indians were hardly recognized as desirable at all. The value of any one piece is determined by its condition, the artistic integrity of the form and the quality and intricacy of the carving--in that order. The decisive factor is the condition of the paint. A tobacco figure with its original paint is a chief among chieftains and fetches top dollar. Original paint jobs are extremely hard to come by because the sidewalk figures were repainted on a regular basis as a routine maintenance measure. As selling devices, they were meant to appear spiffy and fresh, not peeling and faded.
The original color was applied in the artist's workshop using a polychrome paint that Americana dealer Allan Katz describes as having an unmistakable quality that has never been duplicated. "It has the look and feel of silk--almost translucent. It is light and sophisticated. It was not applied with a heavy brush and has a sort of metallic undertone to it," he says. Subsequent reapplications were done by itinerant brushmen with oil-based paint that had a completely different texture and finish. Most collectors classify finding an Indian with original paint as nothing short of a spiritual experience. Experts can determine the paint history (referring to the number of paint layers) rather easily by using a magnifying glass--in much the same way a restorer can date furniture or a building.
Determining the artistic integrity of a piece is not as cut and dried. It is as subjective as judging any piece of sculpture. Each carver had his own style. Since most of the works are unsigned, they can be attributed to a particular artist or his shop by identifying characteristic modeling techniques or poses.
Prussian-born artist Julius Melchers of Detroit elicited his creations from quartered ship masts. Constricted by the contour of the spar, the figures are often spindly. By turning them upside down, you can see the wood's straight grain. He was one of the few artists who used Native Americans as models. Thomas Brooks was known for his "leaners," Indians resting their elbows on log posts, barrels
or oversized cigars. John Cromwell's trademark was his dramatic V-shaped headdress. Canadian Louis Jobin tended to pose his Indians with the left arm at chest level holding a robe and the right hand grasping a bundle of cigars. The most prolific and perhaps most famous of all was New Yorker Samuel Anderson Robb. He went to art school and worked steadily for 60 years from 1864 until 1924. After his first wife died, he began fashioning sweet-faced squaws holding roses--like the one he designed for his wife's tombstone. Many of these pieces have survived; one stands in dealer Mark Goldman's bedroom.
Not many collections are as extensive as his. The pieces are large and require a lot of space. There is a relatively small number of tobacconist figures in circulation, for perhaps only a few thousand survived what Allan Katz calls the "cigar-store Indian holocaust." He refers to the fact that after the First World War, when production stopped and many had been "brought inside" as a result of the 1910 urban-sidewalk-obstruction laws, countless Indians disappeared. Some of the wooden ones were broken or burned as firewood. Scores of zinc Indians were also contributed to the scrap-metal drives in both world wars.
The specimens that have survived such desperate circumstances sustain an undeniably powerful presence. Aside from the sheer impact of their size (some stand as tall as seven feet), many of the figures have a compelling aura that would surely lure passersby into any cigar store. An early collector herself, writer Kate Sanborn prophesied in her book, Hunting Indians in a Taxi-Cab: "But the wooden Indian must go; his death knell has been rung. In the old days, a cigar store without this symbol would be as lacking in life as a one ring circus at the present time. All has changed: you can walk street after street in any city, and pass tobacco stores by the score but your old friend is not there." In 1911, she was only half right. The wooden Indian lives.
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Michael Hart — Chicago, IL, United States of America, — February 22, 2011 5:09pm ET
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