Big Smoke – The Cigar Store Indian

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In the 19th century many people could not read, so store owners placed carvings of various symbols in front of their shops so passersby knew what was sold inside. A carving of a wooden Indian indicated a tobacco store; a red, white and blue striped pole symbolized a barber; three gold balls represented a pawn shop; a mortar and pestle indicated an apothecary.

The use of the carved Indian as a symbol in front of a tobacco shop began in England the early 1600s as the ships from America started to bring back tobacco. The symbolism of the statues was due to the source of the tobacco supply at that time was from Native Americans.  By 1650 tobacco was growing in popularity, and in London, several cigar store Indians gave rise to what became a form of signage that has been used for over 250 years.  These early carvings were made by carvers who had never seen a Native American so they were based on drawings or descriptions from those who had visited the colonies.  The sculptures were sometimes called “Virginians” or “Virginnie men” to clarify what they represented.

Around 1890 tobacconists were expanding their product lines.  As a result, many of the cigar store Indians were retired or thrown away. Today there are not many left. Those that exist tend to be in museum collections or in private hands. We are lucky enough to still have one, Chief Heckawi known locally as Big Smoke. He features on Wikipedia  and you can come see him for yourself  at our Windsor store.

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Big Smoke knows his cigars and you’ll find that he recommends only the finest products! keep an eye out for his seal of approval.