Cigar Store Indians: The Original Tobacco Advertising Pitchmen

This 19-century life-sized carving of an Indian scout, right hand raised above forehead, is attributed to Thomas V. Brooks of New York. An example of the golden age of cigar store Indians, it sold for $34,500 at Cowan’s auctions in 2007.

In the 1600s, ships traversed the Atlantic Ocean as businessmen in England looked to expand commerce and consumption of tobacco from America to Europe. The tobacco trade connected settlers who grew the crops in Virginia near the Jamestown colony, sailors who transported the dried leaves and the brokers who sold tobacco to merchants and shopkeepers of Europe. As an easy way to advertise to illiterate consumers, tobacco sellers displayed carved images of American native peoples that would eventually become known as the iconic “cigar store Indian.”

Cigar store Indians may have begun as tobacco advertising but today, these often life-size figurines are a category of collectible antiques that often sell for thousands of dollars. The record price for a cigar store figure is $542,400 for a circa 1851-1928 carved “Punch” figure attributed to Samuel Robb, one of the most famous American carvers (Punch, a British weekly magazine with the subtitle “the London Charivari,” was best known for its use of humorous illustration. Established in 1841, it helped to coin the term “cartoon.” These Punch carvings were often cartoonish in their depiction of the subject.)

The Origin of the Cigar Store Indian

Use of the cigar store Indian dates back to 1617 in England at a time when tobacco shop owners commonly placed countertop figures called “Virginie men”—as Native Americans were called by Europeans then—to advertise the type of goods sold in their stores. Tobacco is commonly associated with the native Indian because the Mayan native peoples introduced the smoking ritual to Christopher Columbus, who was offered dried tobacco leaves; as the New World was colonized, sailors began bringing tobacco back to Europe.

Original cigar store figurines were always hand-made and individually designed. The most talented carvers in England were all competing amongst themselves for the tobacconists’ business, and each tried to out-do the other in individuality, versatility and depth. By the middle of the 20th century, the cigar store Indian became less common due to higher manufacturing costs, restrictions on tobacco advertising, sidewalk-obstruction laws and increased racial sensitivity.

Craftsman styles for cigar store figurines range from early individually wood-sculpted statues to later versions that took advantage of the evolving technological advances, such as statues poured in molds, machine- and chainsaw-carved statues and metal versions. While the figures still remain a tradition for cigar shop owners, they are also popular among antique dealers, art collectors and museums.

An example of a “Punch” figure, named for a British weekly magazine best known for its use of humorous illustration that helped to coin the term “cartoon.” This cigar-smoking fellow is definitely cartoonish.

Cigar store Indians were a must for every reputable tobacco shop in the United States. In terms of folk art, cigar store Indian statues have become one of the most popular categories purchased today, according to Nancy Druckman, who has served as the director for the American Folk Art Department at Sotheby’s for 30 years. (Photo:

Many of the early cigar store Indians were more blocky in design, such as this piece, likely of mid-Atlantic origin. Carved of pine, it stands 39 inches high It brought $14,950 at auction in 2008.

Tobacco History

The origin of the wooden Indian statue in cigars stores came about shortly after the arrival of the Jamestown colonists in Virginia, 1610. The Jamestown settlement was the first English tobacco plantation in Virginia. The first known cigar Indian statue was created in 1617 and was aptly named Virginie Man. These “Virginie Men” were placed on store countertops to represent different tobacco companies. Rather than Indians, the original wooden statues were depictions of black men wearing headdresses and kilts of tobacco because most European carvers had never actually seen an Indian; so they took on a look of other cultures that were more familiar to the artisans of that time. Author J.L. Morrison noted in his book, “An Authoritative History of Cigar-Store Indians,” that it was not until the 1840s that the image of an actual Indian was used.

Later on, these wooden figures were prominently seen as figureheads attached to the front of sailing vessels that transported tobacco from America to Europe. These figures were mostly life-sized forms carved by expert woodcraftsmen as payment for the voyage to America. Shop owners began using carvings of figures and their products in front of their stores to symbolize the types of goods sold there because a small percentage of the population could read English, due to illiteracy and a high rate of immigration at the time.

This life-sized carving of an American Indian chief, carved in the last quarter of the 19th century is also attributed to Brooks. It is painted in bright, polychrome enamel and features an outstretched right arm holding a bundle of cigars while another bundle of cigars is in the crook of his left arm. Despite missing the original carved wooden rifle, it realized $21,850 in auction in 2006 at Cowan’s Auctions.

While some cigar store Indians were made of cast iron, most were made of pine taken from the harbor spar yards and were painted in the carver’s workshop. During that era, there were many types of store front figures, but only the figures that featured carved tobacco leaves or cigars were specific to tobacco shops.

Jean Lippman accounts in her book, “American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone,” that early American carvers also produced imaged of Uncle Sam, clowns, sports figures, politicians and high society women. The oldest continuously standing figure is a1770s Colonial gentleman holding a snuff-box that was made for Christopher Demuth’s tobacco shop in Lancaster, Pa., where it still stands today.

There were hundreds of original figurines produced by numerous artists since the inception of the cigar store idea began in the early 17th century and most were unsigned. However, there are some artists of note, such as the Skillin family of Boston. From the mid-18th to the early 19th century, Simeon Skillin (1716-78), reputed to be America’s first sculptor, worked with his sons, Simeon John Skillin (1747-1800) and Simeon Skillin, Jr. (1757-1806).

Other carvers of the time included: William Rush of Philadelphia (1756-1833), who set the standard by which all other cavers were judged; John L. Cromwell of Manhattan (1805-1873), who was noted for his V-shaped headdresses and fringed tunics; Thomas V. Brooks of New York (1828-1869), noted for his “leaning” Indians which refers to Native American figures resting their elbows on tobacco leaves or logs; and Julius Melchers, 1852, a German immigrant who settled in Detroit.

This hand-carved polychrome-painted figure is believed it to be the work of S. A. Robb, (1851-1928), a Scottish-born shipwright/carver who emigrated to N.Y. in 1849.

The pine stand and mounting bears the legend “F.R. Rice & Company, Chief Cigars, St. Louis, Mo.”

Sold at auction in 2003, this piece realized $51,750.

Charles J. Dodge of New York (1806-1886), who began as a ship carver, later joined his father in business in 1833 as Jeremiah Dodge & Son, Ship Carver. In 1846, Charles entered into partnership with Jacob Anderson, another ship carver, to form Dodge & Anderson.

Another noted carver was Samuel Anderson Robb of Brooklyn, noted for his Indian Maidens, which were done in honor of his wife. He studied at the National Academy of Design and graduated from the Free Night School program at the Cooper Union School of Art. Known as one of the most prolific and sought after artists of his time, Robb was known to have turned out as many as 200 carvings per year and enjoyed 60 years of solid employment from 1864 until 1924.

Lastly, William Demuth, who worked in New York from 1870 to the 1880s, was noted for his claims that he was the first artist in the country to introduce metal show figures.

In terms of folk art, cigar store Indian statues have become one of the most popular categories purchased today, according to Nancy Druckman, who has served as the director for the American Folk Art Department at Sotheby’s for 30 years. The collectibility of cigar store Indians has been noted by historians as early as 1928, with images of the Native American running the gamut from chiefs to squaws to braves. The most important and collectible types of cigar store Indians are original hand-carved statues created in the 1800s. The carvers at the time worked in elaborate workshops filled with specialists who worked on different parts of the body as their skills allowed.

The Indian brave standing by a tree stump and holding tobacco leaves on a rectangular base mounted with a plaque inscribed J. W. Fiske Park Place is made if cast zinc, circa 1880. It sold for $15,600 at Doyle Auctions in 2006.

This countertop cigar store Indian is made if papier-mâché, circa 1910. Sporting its original colors and felt on the base bottom, and marked ALFCO-NY on back of pedestal, it gaveled for $540 in 2008.

This full-figure cigar store Indian is of the John Cromwell School. In right hand he holds a bundle of cigars, perched atop a square snuffbox, while in left he clutches knife and holds two wrapped packs of tobacco to chest with arms. It sold for $12,600 in 2004.

Even in the 19th century, these wooden figures were expensive. If a store went out of business, a competitor would frequently acquire its carved Indian and put his own advertising message on the base. Some bases have been found to have been repainted as many as five or six times by other shops.

During the early 20th century through—around the end of the First World War—sidewalk obstruction laws required that cigar store Indians be removed from sidewalks and brought indoors. The Great Depression brought productions of the advertising Indians to nearly a completely to a halt. Many of the original cigar store Indians were chopped up and used as firewood.

Few original cigar store Indians remain intact today, which makes those that remain collectible and demanding higher prices. Figures with original paint command the highest prices on today’s market. Figures that were refurbished decades ago by other tobacco shop tradesmen are also as desirable to collectors. Stripped or freshly painted are the least desirable.

Terry Akins began her media career as a Los Angeles celebrity hairstylist and makeup artist. Starting with beauty products and blog, Terry quickly found a following and discovered a new career. She added to her portfolio by writing a music blog for the Examiner from her home in Tennessee. Branching out via client request, her portfolio now includes articles about children, parenting, fashion and construction. She currently moves between the cities of Los Angeles, Calif., and Jackson, Tenn.

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