A cigar store doesn’t seem complete without a wooden Indian standing guard at the door watching over the cache of meticulously rolled and aged tobacco. While we all have come to expect its warm greeting at most fine cigar establishments, we may not know why or how this iconic tradition came to be.
It was the American Indians that first introduced tobacco to the Europeans. The earliest known use of the Indian as a figure for cigar stores dates back to the 17th century when the wooden figures were much smaller and placed on countertops.
The commercial sailing ships that transported tobacco from Europe to America were adorned with beautifully carved figureheads on the bow of the ships. As steam vessels made sailing ships obsolete, woodcarvers had to find new ways to make a living. They turned their craft to carving Indians for cigar stores.
Just as pawnshops used three gold balls and barbershops used barber poles to advertise to the illiterate, so did cigar stores with their Indians. Most residents in America in the late 19th century couldn’t read “Tobacconist Shop”, so these Indians took the place of written signs signaling where to buy cigars.
As the woodcarvers competed against themselves for business, the Indians became more detailed and elaborate. The more beautiful the Indian, the more memorable the cigar store. The cigar store Indian soon became the mark of quality cigars and complemented the experience of buying and enjoying cigars. These wooden figures are still treasures to today’s avid collectors.
While there have been many ways that Native Americans have been portrayed that have caused some frustration, anger and shame, the symbol of the cigar store Indian actually pays homage to America’s connection to it’s Native American introduction to tobacco. While the Native Americans usually used tobacco in sacred ceremonies and to seal deals.
It was believed that tobacco is a gift from the Creator, and that the exhaled tobacco smoke carries one’s thoughts and prayers to heaven.
While times have changed and also the use of tobacco, the cigar store Indian is a long standing symbol of respect to the Native Americans who shared their customs with our ancestors.