A carving of a wooden Indian, a red, white, and blue striped pole, three golden balls suspended from a curved bar, and the mortar and pestle―symbols used by early store keepers to advertise and inform a predominately illiterate populace of their respective trades and services. And with only 12% of the people in the world able to read and write in 1820, the use of such symbols wasn’t really an option for business owners, it was a must. This is the story of Cigar Store Indians.
American Indians Invade England
The symbolism of the carved Indian is deeply rooted in England, by way of Virginia.
Sir Walter Raleigh, the writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer, is probably best known for helping colonize North America and popularizing tobacco in England. After all, it was his Roanoke Island colonists that returned to England in 1586 with maize, potatoes; and you guessed it, tobacco.
In the years that followed, Virginia tobacco poured into England through its sea ports, and into the mouths and lungs of the English. With its inextricable connection to American Indians, it wasn’t long before tobacco merchants used depictions of Indians to lure tobacconists into their shops.
Having never laid their eyes upon a Native American, early English carvers created caricatures based on descriptive hearsay and drawings from those who had visited the American Colonies. As such, early ‘Cigar Store Indians’ looked more like African slaves adorned with fanciful headdresses and other exotic accoutrements.
The wood carvings were commonly referred to as “Virginians” and “Virginnie Men” in the tobacco trade. By 1650, Cigar Store Indians were more realistic in appearance and had become synonymous with tobacco and stores where tobacco was sold.
Cigar Store Indian Crosses the Pond
It wasn’t long before the Cigar Store Indian made its way across the pond and onto American shores. As city populations soared, robust commerce followed suit. By the 1850s, tobacco stores sprung up in every city; and with nearly every store, stood a carving of a stoic wooden Indian.
The majority of wooden Indian carvers came from the shipyards, where they sculpted wooden figure heads and decorative trim for ships. While these woodworkers possessed the skills to craft tobacco store Indians, they didn’t always have the time to do so.
That changed when the shipbuilding industry transitioned from wooden ships to ironclad steamers in the 1850s. When the ‘ship-carving’ business withered away, carvers turned their time and attention to carving figures for retail shops―chief among them, tobacco store Indians.
In addition to Indians, some tobacco shops preferred a turban wearing Turk or a uniformed soldier to stand guard outside their smoke shop.
Samuel Anderson Robb, Famed American Carver
Samuel A. Robb (1851-1928) grew up in Brooklyn, New York as the son of a Scottish shipbuilder. Following a five-year apprenticeship with a shipbuilder, Robb went to work for a wood-carver, where he first started carving tobacco shop Indians. At nights, Robb attended the National Academy of Design, and then Cooper Union, where he continued to hone his skills as a woodcarver. He then worked for William Demuth Company, which specialized in pipes, smoker’s requisites, cigar-store figures, canes, and other carved objects.
In 1876, the 25-year-old Robb opened his own workshop, where it grew into the largest of its kind in New York City. His carvings ranged from Cigar Store Indians to circus wagons and ventriloquist dummies. After completing a set of circus wagons for Barnum & Bailey, he closed his shop at 114 Centre Street in 1903.
Decline of Cigar Store Indians
As city streets became more congested with people and storefronts, municipalities passed sidewalk-obstruction laws, which reduced or eliminated the amount of space needed to display Cigar Store Indians. Expanded tobacco product lines, restrictions on tobacco advertising, and cultural and racial sensitivities also dampened the use and visibility of Cigar Store Indians.
Those that remain today, tend to be in museums or private collections. One such collector and dealer, Mark Goldman, claims to own the world’s largest collection of authentic, pre-1910 Cigar Store Indians. And looking over his website, it’s a claim that seems to have merit!
Well-preserved figures carved by renowned artists like Samuel A. Robb, can command more than $100,000 at auction.