Friday, May 20, 2016

American Carved and Gilded Tobacco Trade Figure

Rare American Antebellum Carved and Gilded Tobacco Trade Figure. 

Last night I attended a auction preview party at New Orleans Auction. I was impressed with a carved gilded figure of a of a black boy dressed in Turkish garb on display. I was even more impressed that it had a Mobile, Alabama provenance. This lifesize carved figure has giving me inspiration to do a painting including him in the future. Here is the description from  the auction house. Rare American Carved and Gilded Tobacco Trade Figure, second quarter 19th century, attributed to the Boston/Salem School of carved figures, on a black-painted platform, the figure retaining its original gilt surface, dressed in traditional Turkish attire and turban, holding a carved bundle of tobacco leaves, h. 66-1/2", w. 20", d. 20". By repute, this figure was used in an antebellum Mobile, Alabama tobacconist shop called "The Gilded Turk" which sold Turkish tobacco. Tobacco originated in the Americas and was introduced to the Ottoman Turks by the Spanish. The Ottoman people over time developed their own method of growing and using tobacco.

Cigar Store Indian, Wooden Indians, Shop Figures and Wood Statues used as commercial advertisement signposts for retail and tobacco shops throughout early America.

Tobacco a catalyst for Colonial Growth & Dynamics 

        Tobacco is native to the Americas, and the practice of inhaling the smoke
of the dried plant material was first documented in the Mayan Indian culture more than 2,000 years ago. The Mayans moved Northward from Central America through the Aztec Empire and eventually took their customs to North American Indian tribes. 

        The Arawak Indians of the Caribbean smoked tobacco; Christopher Columbus, during his 1492 voyage, found them smoking "loosely rolled cigars". Men returning from inland expeditions reported with incredible tales, including stories of Indians with "smoking heads". First, Christopher
Columbus in 1492 and later, the Spanish Conqueror Hernando Cortes in 1519 took tobacco seeds to Europe. Less than 50 years later, in the mid-1500's, tobacco had become a valuable commodity in global trade. 

Where in 1561 Jean Nicot gave the plant its' generic name, Nicotiana. Sir Walter Raleigh began the popularization of pipe smoking in Great Britain in 1586, and the cultivation and consumption of tobacco spread with each voyage of discovery from Europe. 

        While at this time we see the birth of Professional wood carving in three-dimensional form evolving from this medieval period with single figures and groups for major altarpieces and for niches in large architectural screens. During the 16th century these figures assumed a grace of pose
and realism, of detail, that represent a high point in the art of wood sculpture. 

        Discovery of the New World brought about a revitalization of European
culture, which would lead to the Industrial Revolution and the pursuit of
raw materials and markets, which in turn would lead to worldwide
European colonialism on a grand scale. The Americans' contribution to
world culture was tobacco as its first CASH Export Crop. 

John B. Rolfe 1585, was one of the first permanent English settlers in Virginia and the first Tobacco Plantation Owner in the Virginia colony. Located at JAMESTOWN around 1610 and is credited with developing the strain of tobacco that became Virginia's staple crop. 

        In 1614 he married the Indian princess POCAHONTAS, with her father's
approval the union symbolized a growing trend of Indian submission, colony independence and tobacco as a commercial crop. John Rolfe remained a successful tobacco planter and the following eight years of peaceful Indian relations stabilized the tobacco production in the colony. 

        The origin of the wooden Indian dates back to England in 1617, when small wooden figures called "Virginie Men" were placed on countertops to represent tobacco companies. These "Virginians" (the local English renditions of Indians) were depicted as black men wearing headdresses and kilts made of tobacco leaves. 

        Commercial transportation for Tobacco cargo from Virginia and Immigration transportation to Virginia was contracted sailing vessels for the long oceanic crossing. Often identified by the brightly polychromed or gilded wooden figurehead, perched prominently on the front or bow of the vessel, under the bowsprit. 

        Wood carving, or wood sculpture, is one of the oldest and most
widespread forms of art. Because of the near universality of trees, the relative simplicity of the necessary technology, and the relative durability of the product, wood carving has been practiced in almost all cultures from the earliest times. 

        Professional carvers often paid for transatlantic voyage by carving or maintenance of previous carved ship figurehead and mast during the crossing. From approximately 1760 to 1880, however, these figures were often life-size human forms, either realistic portraits of prominent historical
figures or mythical ideal types, carved to stride, point, or look forward with serious mien. 

        The great sailing clipper ship along with professional wood carvers profession would soon be in jeopardy. The first transatlantic passage by a steam powered vessel was made in 1827. 

As Steam Ships brought about the decline in sailing vessels the professional carvers turned their attention to new marketing enterprises. Most cigar-store Indians were carved in Eastern seaboard or Midwestern cities by artisans who might never have actually encountered a Native American; The figures look like white men in native garb. "In retrospect Experts believe that the population of Original Cigar-Store Indians made (said to be approximately 100,000 or so around the turn of the century) is now about several thousand or less." 

        The Cigar-Store Indian crosses the Atlantic Ocean for two reasons:

        Economics and Sociology. In the American entrepreneurial spirit, some innovative tobacco sellers sought unconventional images for their trade signs to set them apart from the more established merchants. 

        The merchant customer often remembered the quality look and feel of specific wooden Indian over the products of the merchant. These Indians would enhance the flavor of high class cigar friendly smoking rooms, increase the appearance of fashionable hotel lobbies or go nicely on the
sidewalk of the local tobacconist shop. 

        At the same time, since the carvers were all competing among themselves for the tobacconists' business, each tried to out-do the other in individuality, versatility and depth. 

        Artists like the Skillin family, John Cromwell (most noted for his V shape headdress), Thomas Brooks (leaning statues) and Samuel Robb (Indian Maiden) operated full time studio's, employing staff carvers and painters to meet production demands. They put out catalogues of their product lines and frequently updated and expanded them. 

        From the mid-18th to the early 19th century the Skillin family of Boston produced preeminent carvers in wood. Ship figure-heads, architectural details, ornamental garden figures, and pediment figures of mahogany came from their shops. 

        Simeon Skillin, 1716-78, reputed to be America's first sculptor, received important commissions, primarily for ship carvings, but also for shop signs and portrait busts. Most notable was the shop established by John Skillin, 1747-1800, and Simeon Skillin, Jr., 1757-1806, which enjoyed a nationwide reputation. Their works testify to the contemporary enthusiasm
for allegorical abstraction and graceful neoclassical forms. The brothers' training and example influenced the style of subsequent wood carving in the United States. 

 The American-made Cigar-Store Indian were clothed in fringed buckskins, draped with blankets, decorated with feathered headdresses and sometimes shown holding tomahawks or bows, arrows and spears. Their facial features rarely resembled members of any particular American Indian. 

        Cigar-Store Indians were designed to capture the attention of the people walking by, informing them that tobacco was sold inside. It is said that the average cigar smoker in America in the late 1800s couldn't read the words "Tobacconist Shop". 

        America was quickly becoming a social melting pot of people with diverse origins. The average nineteenth-century American resident lacked a shared common language, and so the sidewalk cigar-store Indian was vital for business. 

        Visual trade signs were essentially stand-ins for written signposts that might have been incomprehensible to potential customers, many of them immigrants. 

        The carvers sculpted Indian chiefs, braves, princesses and indian maidens, sometimes with boarded papooses. Most of these displayed some form of tobacco in their hands or on their clothing. 


  1. What a remarkable thing; I love it!

    1. It is, I can't wait to get started on the painting.

    2. It is, I can't wait to get started on the painting.

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