Although it is easy to give television and other mass media credit for creating the world of commercial images we live in today, some advertising icons predate these media forms. The sidewalk of a nineteenth century business district was a vibrant advertising forum. Among the pedestrians on these wooden men and women stood outside the storefronts. Collectively these figures are often called "Cigar Store Indians," although the figures that do not represent Native Americans and those which did not stand outside cigar stores are equally interesting. These figures attempted to lure passers-by in from the pavement.
The Indian "Chief" or "Squaw" suggested a romantic notion of the native based on the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, dime westerns, and other iconographic lore. As the introducer of tobacco to the Europeans the Native American was ubiquitously linked to the industry. Thus a universal brand for tobacco was created.
Tobacconists did not have a monopoly on the use of anthropomorphic figures as storefront advertisement. While tea shops used idealized figures of Chinese men and women to enhance the authenticity of their product, a women's clothier may have placed a figure of a handsomely dressed woman out front. Other shops relied on a more esoteric aesthetic.
Although some figures were made of cast metal, the great majority were carved from wood by well-trained artisans. Most of these carvers originally made ship figureheads. The market for storefront figures, driven by both the urbanization of America and the growing popularity of cigars, peaked just as the market for ship figureheads, along with the clipper, waned.
At approximately the turn of the century the era of the "Cigar Store Indian" came to an end. Cities considered the figures impediments to the flow of the urban swarm and required shopkeepers to move them inside, where they lost their original purpose. Today these figures are museum and rumpus room novelties. Shops and websites sell "authentic" cigar store Indians for hundreds of thousands of dollars; one even holds a humidor.
Click on any image you see to the left to access a gallery of images. Here we have used the four categories Hornung details: "Chiefs, Squaws or Pocahontases, Blackamoors or Pompeys, and White Men" (62), to which we have added a separate category for the Chinese tea shop figures.
Most of the images and information presented here comes from Hornung, Clarence P. Treasury of American Design. Harry N. Abrams: New York. 1950. v. 1.