- Inside Antiques,
by Robert Reed
- The Truth About the
Cigar Store Indian
- By Robert Reed
As popular and appealing as cigar store Indians became in early
19th century America, there is every reason to believe they were
a part of a trade sign symbolism dating from centuries earlier.
- Historians have yet to determine exactly when and where the
first cigar store Indian actually appeared in the United States.
However, there were other wooden figures that led the way.
- Around 1720, the first English examples seemed to have appeared
in that country, but were identified as "Black Boys".
In these cases, they were apparently more intended to depict
the black slaves who harvested the tobacco crop in the Colonies,
rather than the Indians who first introduced it.
- But as the tobacco trade developed between the new country
and England, so did the mighty image of the American Indian as
the store symbol for commercial tobacco shops.
- An advertisement in the Albany Gazette of New York in June
of 1819 included a woodcut of an Indian. It was accompanied by
a commercial appeal from the Caldwell Solomons Tobacco and Stuff
Store at 346 North Market Street in New York offering, "sweet-scented
tobacco of their own manufacture. Fine Plug Tobacco, 6 and 8
hands to the lb. Plugtail Tobacco, in 12 pound rolls and kegs
. . ."
- It is ironic that the image of many of the early cigar store
Indians is said to have been derived from the romantic adventures
depicted in James Fenimore Cooper's novels. Yet a major purpose
of the wooden figures was to identify tobacco shops, for those
who could not read. As the demand for "seegars" and
pipe tobacco grew in America, so did the popularity of the wooden
figures of Indian chiefs and Indian princesses in front of shops
- These signs of mercantile success were quite costly for merchants
of the early days. They were commonly used outdoors and were
usually bolted to the buildings, or built on wheels so they could
be moved inside when the shop was closed.
- Some of the earliest and finest work in producing the wooden
Indian figures came from craftsmen in the east coast port cities
who also carved figure-heads on the powerful sailing ships. But
outstanding examples were also crafted as well in the Midwest
by still another group of artists. Almost all of the artists
used white pine and worked and carved in a fashion very similar
to the way ships figures were made.
- Many of these talented artists did not sign their work, or
at least signed infrequently. But some have been well recorded,
such as Charles J. Dodge (1806-1886), who began as a ship carver.
He joined his father in business in 1833 as Jeremiah Dodge &
Son, Ship Carver. Then in 1846 he entered into partnership with
Jacob Anderson, another ship carver, as Dodge & Anderson.
- An outstanding creator of cigar store Indians in the mid-west
was Julius Melchers, a German immigrant who arrived in Detroit
in 1852. Within a few years he was well established in the business.
- A copy
of a bill he issued in 1878 showed he charged $53 for one such
carving and that his billhead listed him as sculptor, modeler
and wood carver. In his book, Artists in Wood, author Frederick
Fried said of Melchers, "from the middle of the 19th through
the 20th centuries no American woodcarver received much recognition
. . ."
- By the later half of the 19th century, the ship carving business
had all but disappeared, but the great talents of artists like
Samuel A. Robb of New York continued unabated. He typically signed
himself S.A. Robb, Carver, 195 Canal NY. He and his
brother, Charles, flourished in the figure business from 1870
through the turn of the century.
- In 1890, artist S. A. Robb explained his procedure in an
interview with New York Times reporter Frank Weitenkampf:
- "The wood used is generally white pine, which is brought
in logs of various lengths at the spar yards. The artist begins
by making the roughest kind of an outline - a mere suggestion
of what the proportions of the figure are to be. In this he is
guided by paper patterns. The log is blocked out with the axe
into appropriate spaces for the head, the body down to the waist,
the portion from there to the knee, the rest of the legs - which
are at once divided - and the feet. A hole is now bored into
each end of the preps red log about five inches deep; into each
of these holes an iron bolt is placed, the projecting parts of
which rests on supports, so that the body hangs free.
- The carver now goes from the general to the particular.
The surface of the wood soon becomes chipped up by the chisel,
and the log generally takes on more definite form. Then, when
the figure is completely evolved, the finishing touches are put
on with finer carving tools. Detached hands and arms are made
separately and joined on to the body by screws. Then the various
portions of the figure are painted, the whole is set upon a stand
running on wheels, and it is ready for delivery."
- It was said the artists of that day also used the engravings
which appeared in such popular magazines as Harper's Weekly and
Leslie's to obtain the fine detail of the expressive faces used
in the final carvings of the cigar store Indians.
- Other noteworthy artists include Arnold and Peter Ruef of
Ohio. These carvers were of German, Swiss and Danish extraction
and labored in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, as well as Ohio
to produce quality shop figures.
- By the late 19th century, area trades people no longer had
to rely entirely on the production of shop figures on the east
- Additional carvers included John Fisher of York, Pennsylvania,
who worked at his craft in the late 1700s, and Thomas Brooks
of New York, who eventually joined with John Cromwell for one
of New York's most successful operations in the late 1800s.
- Another leading craftsman and carver was William Demuth,
who also operated in New York during the 1870s and 1880s. In
1871, the Wm. Demuth & Company printed an advertisement offering
"wooden show figures which we are manufacturing for all
classes of business, such as segar stores, wine & liquor
stores, druggists, Yankee notions, umbrella, clothing, tea stores,
theatres, gardens, banks, and insurance companies."
also claimed in his ads that he was the first artist in the country
to introduce metal show figures.
- The many artists involved naturally produced a variety of
cigar store Indian types. Some were male and some were female,
some wore the traditional headdress while others wore tobacco
leaves on their heads.
- Many of the cigar store Indians began to slowly disappear
around the turn of the 20th century when they became obstacles
in the crowded streets of some cities. Moreover, tobacco merchants
were developing new ways of marketing and advertising their products.
- It should be noted that even during the last half of the
19th century, these wooden figures were expensive for the average
merchant to buy. If a store went out of business, a competitor
would frequently acquire its cigar store Indian and put his own
advertising message on the base. Some bases have been found to
be repainted as many as five or six times by other shops.
- Figures with original paint command the highest prices on
today's market. Those with paint that was refurbished decades
ago by other tobacco shop tradesmen are almost as desirable to
collectors. Those holding the least interest are stripped or
- Realistic figures tend to appeal to a large section of current
antique collections. At the same time, those who consider themselves
folk art collectors prefer the highly original designs and stylized
forms that are attractive, but much less realistic to the naked
- Decades ago, avid collector Electra Havemeyer Webb, daughter
of famed impressionist art collection Louisine Havemyer, recounted
that point in a lecture at Colonial Williamsburg:
- "One day I was driving through our little town of Stamford,
Conn., and what should I see but a cigar store Indian. Well,
she spoke to me: I just had to have her. So I went in and talked
the man into selling it for $15.
- "The foreman of the place brought the wagon and we brought
her home to my mother. Ladies and gentleman, if you could have
seen my mother's face. She said 'What have you done?' And I said,
'I've bought a work of art.' She said, 'This is perfectly dreadful.'
- But now we see things differently."
- Photos, courtesy of Shelburne Museum
- 1 - Carved, polycromed wood cigar store Indian with club
- 2 - Polychrome painted carved wooden Indian, circa 1880,
- 3 - Fine zinc cigar store Indian on original wood base, ca
1875, Wm. Demuth Co.
- Robert Reed has written on antiques and collectibles for
more than two decades. He has also authored 15 books, including
his recently released Antiques and Collectible Dictionary, available
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