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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Greetings to the World of Tobacco
by Bob Brooke


Cigar-store Indians, with their serious chiseled faces, conveyed a sense of grandeur as they greeted customers. Designed to capture the attention of passersby, most of whom in the 19th century lacked a shared common language, the sidewalk wooden Indian became a symbol of the tobacco retail business. Because American Indians introduced tobacco to the Europeans as early as the 17th century, European tobacconists began using figures of American Indians to advertise their shops.

How It All Started
While some shop figures were countertop models, most of these silent greeters stood just outside the door, often mounted on wheels so that they could be rolled in and out. The origin of the wooden Indian dates back to England in 1617, when tobacco shop owners placed small wooden figures called "Virginie Men," depicted as black men wearing headdresses and kilts made of tobacco leaves, on countertops to represent tobacco companies.

Eventually, the European cigar-store figure began to take on a more authentic yet highly stylized appearance, and by the time these figures arrived in America in the late 18th century, they had become authentic Indians, fairly accurate and beautifully carved.

The Carvers
Carvers of these shop figures came from among the makers of ship figureheads. During the late 19th century, the demise of the clipper ship era forced figurehead carvers out of business. These craftsmen gradually turned to producing wooden Indians. Production flourished from about 1840 to the end of the century. In the 1890s, city ordinances required that figures be confined to the interiors of shops, and gradually the statues went out of use. Instead of attracting customers on the outside, they served as mere decoration inside.

While a few makers produced cigar-store Indians of cast iron, most used wood. Carvers used axes, chisels, and mallets on white pine or even quartered ships’ masts, then painted the completed figures in a variety of colors and designs.

While some of these wooden Indians appeared inviting, happily greeting customers, others appeared defensive, as if guarding the store from shoplifters, thieves, and "no smoking" ordinances.

American carvers sculpted Indian chiefs, braves, princesses and Indian maidens, sometimes with boarded papooses. Most of these displayed some form of tobacco in their hands or on their clothing. They generally depicted stereotypical chiefs and squaws, clothed in fringed buckskins, draped with blankets, decorated with feathered headdresses, and sometimes shown holding tomahawks or bows, arrows and spears. Their facial features rarely resembled members of any particular American Indian tribe.

Female wooden Indians, also known as “Pocahontas,” appeared four times more than their male counterparts in classical or Egyptian-inspired poses. Carvers occasionally donned them with headdresses of tobacco leaves instead of feathers and dressed their male figures in the traditional war bonnets of the Plains Indians.

As marketing sign-posts, cigar-store Indians were meant to appear fresh and welcoming. Sculptors applied brightly colored paints using soft-bristle brushes, producing a look and feel of satin with an almost translucent glow.

After weeks of labor, the figure would be ready and would be proudly displayed outside the door of the shop. The more skillfully executed ones attracted more viewers and many buyers.

Carvers produced about 300 cigar-store Indians annually—yet there are relatively few original ones left today. Those that do exist reside in museums and in private collections. Historians believe carvers created over 100,000 cigar-store Indians. Since the carvers all competed with each other for the tobacconists' business, each tried to out do the other in individuality, versatility and depth. A few artists even used Native Americans as models.

Styles of Carving
Determining the artistic integrity of a statue is as subjective as judging any piece of sculpture. Each artist had his own unique style. Since most didn’t sign their figures, cigar-store Indians can only be attributed to a particular artist or his shop by identifying characteristic modeling techniques or body positions.

Thomas Brooks became known for his "leaners," wooden Indians resting their elbows on log posts, barrels or oversized cigars. John Cromwell's trademark was a distinctive V-shaped headdress. French Canadian Louis Jobin tended to place his cigar-store Indians with their left arm at chest level holding a robe and grasping a bundle of cigars in the right hand.

The man who probably made more wooden Indians than anyone else was Samuel Anderson Robb. After his first wife died, Robb began fashioning sweet-faced Indian maidens holding roses similar to the kind he designed for his wife's tombstone.

Some of these advertising sculptures, standing several feet tall up to life-sized, were works of art, and as such fetch premium prices today. Collectors determine the value of a cigar-store Indian by its condition, the artistic integrity of its form, and the quality and intricacy of the carving in that order. But the decisive factor is the condition of the wood finish. Wooden Indians with their original paint are almost impossible to find because itinerant painters repainted them on a regular basis as routine maintenance.

And while cigar-store Indians may have faded into history, they haven’t been forgotten.

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