A cigar store Indian sits outside the door of many cigar and tobacco shops. While this can easily be viewed as an unwanted stereotype of the Native American community, it is also a part of cigar and tobacco history. As some of these wooden Indians appear inviting, happily greeting any incoming customers, others appear defensive, as if guarding the store from shoplifters, thieves, and "no smoking" ordinances. However they appear, they appear often — cigar store Indians have become advertising icons in the world of tobacco.
Just as candy-caned barber poles have become synonymous with barber shops, and talking lizards have become synonymous with car insurance, these wooden Indians have become synonymous with cigar stores, historically serving as an advertisement that tells the masses where tobacco is sold. Nowadays, however, the cigar store Indian is used less as a form of advertisement and more as a form of decoration, one that brings dimension and culture to tobacco's colorful past.
How They Began
When Native Americans introduced tobacco to the European populace, they became spokespeople for the cigar industry, forever intertwining their culture with the culture of tobacco. Because of this, a visual picture of an Indian was often used to tell the masses - highly illiterate masses - where they could purchase tobacco.
Seventeenth century Europe marked the first time sellers of tobacco used a wooden Indian to peddle their product. However, because those who did the first carving had not actually seen a Native American, the first wooden Indians that sat on stoops of the cigar stores of Europe often appeared to be fanciful, fictional characters. Yet, by the time the wooden Indian made its way to America, it began to take on a much more genuine, authentic appearance.
How They Were Carved
While some Cigar Store Indians were made of cast iron, most were made of wood. The majority of them were made by artisans or professional carvers. Using axes, chisels, and mallets on white pine, the wooden figures were carved and then painted in a tapestry of folklore, fine arts, and popular culture. In addition to wooden Indians, carvers also produced wooden sports figures, politicians, high society women, and Scotsmen.