The history of the cigar store Indian. No, that history doesn’t start in America. Even though cigar store Indians are now considered Americana. The story of the cigar store Indians starts in the United Kingdom.

In the late 16th century, the British started to import tobacco from the east coast of the United States. Mostly from Virginia. But in those days, most people didn’t know how to read. So different trades had different trademarks that made clear what kinds of shops they are. Some of those signs are still being used. Think of the mortar and pestle still used by pharmacies. Or the red, blue and white striped poles at barber shops. Cigar store Indians are that trademark for tobacconists. 

Why a Native American?

Back in those days, tobacco was cultivated by Native Americans. So there was a symbolism to use a Native American figure as the sign for a tobacconist. Wood carving was a well-known trade in harbor cities in Great Britain, due to the shipbuilding industry. Back in those days, large ships used to have a wooden figurehead at the bow. And a decorative stern. So wood sculptures started making ‘Virginnie men’ for tobacconists. Most sculptures had never seen a Native American and designed the sculptures from drawings and descriptions of sailors.

The sculptures were around but because really popular in the mid of the 19th century. By that time, steel started to replace the wooden ships. And with that, the figureheads were a thing of the past. Woodcarvers started to carve other sculptures and furniture. And more cigar store Indians. Not all cigar shops used the image of a Native American. There were Turks with Turbans, soldiers in uniform and later on even the Punch clown.

Ministry of Cigars
The Punch Clown, a play on the cigar store Indian
Ministry of Cigars Cigar Store Turk
A cigar store Turk with a pipe in his belt (photo credit John Cornall Antiques)

Cigar Store Indians in the United States

It was also during that time that the cigar store Indian became popular in the United States. Towns were growing, so it wasn’t automatically clear what shop was where for newcomers. So tobacconists in the United States started to use the same sculptures as the tobacconists in Great Britain. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the popularity dropped. City councils started to regulate the obstruction of sidewalks and more people were able to read. Many cigar store Indians were discarded and thrown away. Original 19th-century cigar store Indians can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And are museum-worthy.

Since the cigar boom in the mid-1990s, the cigar store Indian regained popularity. Even though the controversy for being a racist stereotype just like the African American lawn jockey. Many cigar shops or lounges have a cigar store Indian on display. And those displays will always be part of the cigar culture. Not just in the United States or Great Britain, but worldwide, wooden sculptures of Native Americans will be synonymous with cigars. 

And that is the history of the cigar store Indian in a nutshell.