"...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.
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.
Nancy Wolfson writes about style and lives in New York City.
A COLLECTOR'S GUIDE
Mark Goldman - House of Oxford
172 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10010
Telephone: (212) 243-1943 or (800) 831-8893
Fax: (212) 243-2034
Timothy and Pamela Hill - Hill Gallery
163 Townsend Street
Birmingham, Michigan 48009
Telephone: (810) 540-9288
Fax: (810) 540-6965
Allan Katz Americana
175 Ansonia Road
Woodbridge, Connecticut 06525
Telephone: (203) 397-8144
17 East 96 Street
New York, New York 10128
Telephone: (212) 348-5219
Sanford Smith's Fall Antiques Show
New York City (October)
The Philadelphia Antiques Show (April)
For a calendar of events or more information, write to Sanford Smith & Assoc., Ltd.
68 East 7 Street
New York, New York 10003.
Telephone: (212) 777-5218
Fax: (212) 477-6490
The Antiquarian and Landmark Antique Show
Hartford, Connecticut (October)
Telephone: (203) 247-8996
The Shelburne Museum
U.S. Route 7, Post Office Box 10
Shelburne, Vermont 05482
Telephone: (802) 985-3346
(Houses a collection of more than 175 trade signs)
Artists in Wood by Frederick Fried (1970, Bramhall House, division of Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., New York, 297 pages)
Antiques and the Arts Weekly
5 Church Hill Road
Newtown, Connecticut 06470
Telephone: (203) 426-3141Fax: (203) 426-1394
(Lists national and international auctions)
Maine Antique Digest
911 Main Street
Waldoboro, Maine 04572
Telephone: (207) 832-7534