Collectors Eye, 1999  Vol. 2. No. 2

Written by: Donna C. Kaonis

     "It was not until the 1950's that the general public began to realize that cigar store Indians were anything more than firewood." So stated in a June, 1974 article in the New York Times.

     The fact that one of folk art's most visible and costly categories was so little regarded until the second half of the twentieth century may surprise some readers. There were a few pioneer collectors in this area during the early part of this century - in 1911 writer / collector Kate Sanborn wrote "Hunting Indians in a Taxi Cab," with photos taken by her of examples still remaining on city sidewalks. Collectors site the important Park-Bernet auction held in 1956, featuring the cigar store Indian and trade sign collection of Rudolph Haffenreffer. Prices ranged from $275 to $2,050 and were described as shocking to all but folk art enthusiasts. The same 1974 New York Times article noted the escalating prices, then current prices being as much as ten times what they were in 1956.

     One of today's preeminent collectors of cigar store figures is Mark Goldman, a third generation wholesale tobacconist located in New York City. Mark began his collection of Indians and related figures in 1967 and has since amassed a "tribe" that numbers around seventy. Five of his figures were lent to the 1997-98 traveling exhibition produced by New York City's Museum of American Folk Art.

The Cigar Store Indian as Advertising Art

     The marketing of tobacco was well underway in Europe by the mid-eighteenth century. Lacking familiarity with the American Indian, English carvers used as their models young black slaves from the West Indies, adding a headdress and kilt of tobacco leaves. With the introduction of snuff, a Scottish highlander figure also became a popular subject.

     Like so many other artistic traditions that found their way from Europe to America, the "image business," a phrase coined by the carvers themselves, was flourishing along the East Coast by the 1840s, reaching its height by the 1890s. At this time America was a melting point of nationalities with many peoples who could not read or write English. Figural trade signs and shop figures indicative of their trades made the wheels of commerce run smoothly and profitably.

     Many artisans turned to making cigar store Indians when steamships displaced wooden ships and figurehead carving was longer needed. Wooden cigar store figures were typically made of white pine which could be purchased as large logs, thus saving the time and cost of laminating smaller sections together. Pine has a straight grain and was easily cut and carved. The artist created a design and cut out a paper or cardboard pattern of the front and side views which could be used for making additional figures. The actual carving was done by "eye" with chalk or pencil lines for guides.

     Most artists, with the notable exception of Detroit carver Julius Theodore Melchers, an authority on Indian culture, were not concerned with authenticity. Indians were understandably the predominant subject, but as American popular culture grew, embracing its many peoples, other characteristics were offered: Turkish sultans, Punch figures, Scottish Highlanders, politicians, policemen, jockeys, baseball players and racetrack touts. Oriental figures advertised tea shops and fashionable ladies were seen in front of dressmakers' stores. Figures virtually became a fad, and shops became increasingly competitive, which also contributed to the variety of figures. Salesmen from the larger shops carried catalogs with them from which their customers could order.

     The larger shops had one or two master carvers, a few apprentices and one or two itinerant journeymen. Carvers often worked in various shops during their career which accounts for the similarities in style sometimes seen.

     For a very long time shop figures were an unexplored area, because artists were not known and attribution could not be made. The exception was Samuel Robb who, for a period of time, routinely signed his figures. His New York City shop was the largest and most prolific. the developing interest and appreciation in folk art led art historian and professor Frederick Fried to compile a carefully researched book entitled "Artists in Wood," which was published in 1970. Mr. Fried began by locating descendants of Robb who were able to provide photographs, papers, trade cards and other materials related to their ancestor. In the course of investigating Robb, information on his contemporaries and associates surfaced. This in turn led to the discovery of their living relatives and more long-lost information was unearthed.

     Fried's extensive research includes numerous written accounts by carvers who, in almost all cases, did not consider themselves to be sculptors. "Cutting" was the word they used to describe their craft. Samuel Robb listed his occupation on his marriage certificate as "artist in wood" from whence the title of Fried's book was taken.

     Not all shop figures were made in commercial shops; there were many self-taught artists, especially in inland areas, who made figures for local markets. After 1860 figures were also marketed nationally by a few large tobacco distributors, most notably William Demuth & Co., New York. His catalogs offered wooden figures as well as zinc figures. The latter were cast from molds and was more durable than wood. Metal figures were more expensive at the time, involving great production expense (first a wooden mold had to be carved to make a casting mold) and could cost up to $175 compared to $125 for an expensive wooden figure. Today, the wood figures command the greatest prices, each being a unique, one-of-kind carving.

     The eighth census of the United States, taken in 1860, showed 2,269bwood carvers; of those New York State led with 959 carvers. One carver stated "twelve to fourteen years of apprenticeship is necessary to make a competent workman, and that accounts for the scarcity of good hands, for the wages are low and the demand limited."

     With increasing industrialization came inevitable specialization. One man would roughly chop the log with an ax, a carver would finish the form, another low-wage employee would sandpaper the figure. It was then given a base and sent to the paint department. Both wood and metal figures were hand painted.


Well-Known Carvers

    We will never know the names of many carvers, as most figures were never signed. The work of certain carvers, among them the most talented and the most successful, has been identified after careful study revealed identifying characteristics.

     Philadelphia carver William Rush (1756-1833) is generally conceded to be America's first native sculptor. He established a reputation in 1794 when he carved six figureheads for Navy frigates. During his lifetime he had commissions for many types of carvings, but he was primarily involved in carving ship and tobacconist's figures.

     John Philip Yeager (1823-1899) left his native Germany at twenty-three and eventually settled in Baltimore. -He did many types of carvings especially for ships and tobacconist's; his ad in the city directory in 1853-1854 advertised "Plain, Ornamental and Fancy Carver," and "Architectural and Ship Work, also Moulds for Castings and Sculpture." One of his largest figures now resides in Maryland Historical Society, a 76-1/2" Indian figure on a 13" base, known as "Lo."

     The most recognized wood-carver during his lifetime was Julius Theodore Melchers (1829-1909) from Detroit. Born in Prussia, Melchers was apprenticed to a master carver at the age of fifteen. He studied in Europe and eventually settled in Detroit in 1852. "Artists in Wood" gives a fascinating account of an 1899 interview by Melchers on his beginnings in Detroit. Shortly before the civil war, he began to teach art to promising students. "It may be said without exaggeration that out of Julius Melchers studio and his Sunday morning classes came much of Detroit's artistic development during the succeeding thirty-five years," wrote George Catlin in "Old Detroit Artists." Fortunately, several important carvings of Melchers have survived, most of them in museum collections.

     Canadian Louis Jobin (1845-1928) was a prolific and masterful carver who as well as tobacconist's figures, created hundreds of religious figures. He received little recognition until late in life when his work was discovered by a journalist, and a resultant article on the carver caught the eye of art historian Marius Barbeau who later visited Jobin and was astonished by his work. Many Jobin pieces reside in the Natural Museum and National Gallery of Canada.

     John L. Cromwell (1805-1873) opened his first shop in New York City when he was twenty-six. He began carving ships figures, and around 1850 switched to show figures, predominately Indians. Cromwell is credited with the carving of a pair of lion's heads which adorned the first circus band chariot, also made in New York City by John Stephenson, a former Irish immigrant. Thomas Brooks (1828-1895) began as an apprentice in Cromwell's shop and later took over much of the carving.

    In 1848 Brooks opened his own shop. An advertisement in a New York City directory (1872-1873) claimed from 75 to 100 figures always on hand. "There were Turks, Sultanas, Punches, Scotsmen in kilts and tall bearskin hats, Uncle Sams, Walter relighs, Dolly Vardens and Indians of all ranks and tribes with their squaws. The figures were nose to nose and back to back as though discussing the events or local scandals of the day." (Taken from an advertisement in the New York Directory, 1861.)

     During the Civil War, Brooks took Samuel Anderson Robb as an apprentice; later Robb went to work for William Demuth. When Robb opened his own shop in 1876 he became a strong competitor to his former boss, and in 1879 Brooks decided to move to Chicago where opportunities for a carver, in the wake of the destruction caused by the Chicago fire in 1871, were much greater. In his new location, he achieved considerable success, even selling to buyers from states further west.

     A remarkable Indian carved by Brooks was still standing on Clarke Street in Chicago when it was photographed in 1930. A similar example is in the collection of Mark Goldman.

     Following his apprenticeship with Brooks, Samuel Anderson Robb (1851-1928) went to work for William Demuth who encouraged the young sculpture to enter art classes at the National Academy of Design. In 1876 Robb opened his open shop in New York City at 406 West 13th Street. An incredible photo in Fried's book shows the inside of Robbs shop with paper patterns hanging from the wall, tools, a carved figure of Sir Walter Raleigh, several Indians and squaws and an unpainted baseball player. Robb, his associate Thomas White, and another unidentified man are in the picture. 

     Robb's growing business got an additional boost when Thomas Brooks moved to Chicago, leaving Robb with virtually all the show figure business in New York City. Besides introducing many new designs, Robb also did a great deal of circus carvings. His shop sold to customers throughout the country as well as through distributer William Demuth. Unlike most carvers, Robb often signed his figures with his name and shop address.

     Sometime after March, 1 1902 Robb and his son Clarence, took space in the Sebastian Wagon Company in order to facilitate an order for thirteen circus wagons for Barnum and Bailey. His brother Charles continued to work out of Robb's Centre Street shop. An amazing portfolio of photographs showing carvers at work on the circus carvings was discovered with Robb's papers and is duplicated in Fried's book.

     In Robb's later years, he gave up his shop but continued to do smaller projects on his own. His final carving, done for Christmas 1923, was a carving of Santa Claus given to his daughter and inscribed, "To Elizabeth, Merry Christmas, from Dad."

     Today, the finest examples of wooden figures can sell for well over $100,000, the best metal figures well over $50,000.

     Ironically, the very fact that cigar store figures were such a familiar sight by the late 1800s obscured their value and artistic merit. Many factors contributing to their demise - urban sidewalk obstruction laws passed in 1910, the proliferation of fruit and newsstand's, and the new electric signs. There were fewer and fewer orders for shop figures, and the remaining shops eked out their income by repairing old figures, making patterns, and signs. World War I scrap metal drives took its toll on metal figures, and wood figures were often relegated to the city dump and bonfires. By World War I shop figures were no longer being made. Created at a time when our cities were new and bursting with energy and enterprise, theses remarkable carvings reflect not only the talents of these artists in wood, but a sculptural tradition that no longer exists.



Collectors Eye, 1999  Vol. 2. No. 2


Written by: Donna C. Kaonis


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