“San Francisco Dandy or Dude,” Heritage Museums and Gardens. http://heritagemuseums.pastperfectonline.com/webobject/6116DB61-0E30-467A-9E71-342248143889
While touring the Heritage Gardens and Museums in Sandwich, Massachusetts last week, I happened into the Carousel Gallery and discovered a display of cigar store Indians and the life-sized white guy pictured above, who the museum labeled "Dude." And there was another life-sized figure, but more on him later. I found some of them downright creepy, as well as interesting.
The things I encountered in the Carousel Gallery are "trade signs" or "trade figures." Trade signs are carved wooden images used in the nineteenth-century to entice people to buy products, such as tobacco and alcohol. These figures (often life-sized) are a curiosity – and often an outrage – to us today. But in the mid-1860s, they would have been a familiar sight to my characters Maggie and Eli Smith. So, I briefly would like to delve into this unique form of advertising.
First some background. Painted images on signs in the colonial era were used for a very practical reason: not everyone could read. They drew prospective customers regardless of education into the shop. Example: if you needed shoes but were illiterate, you would look for a shop with the image of a pair of shoes. If you were looking for a cup of coffee and were in Williamsburg, Virginia, the sign outside this building would tell you where to grab a cuppa Joe and engage in a little revolutionary conversation in the bargain. (You can still do it today! Visit Williamsburg and other historical sites and learn some history. Please!)
Jaime Morrison of the The Nonist notes in his post, “The Image Business and the Wooden Indian,” that wooden sculptures came into fashion in the 1820s when steam engine-powered ships started to supplant sailing ships. Unemployed figurehead carvers began to put their skills to use creating statues to stand outside of shops. Morrison says the carvers coined the term “the image business” to describe their craft.
Today if you are familiar with trade sign figures at all, it is probably because somewhere you have seen an image of a “cigar store Indian" like the one below.
Not surprisingly, tobacco store statues usually did not look anything like a real Native American, probably because the sculptor had never met an Indian. And yet native peoples were associated with tobacco, even though it was Europeans who extensively cultivated the plant.
Blogger Jaime Morrison observes that once the Indian had become established as the image associated with tobacco, other figures began to appear: “Turks and sultans (for turkish tobacco), Punch figures (which survived into the modern age on rolling papers), Scottish highlanders (for snuff), baseball players, and ‘racetrack touts or dandies’ with jeering faces dressed in houndstooth coats and top hats.” (That last one would be our Dude at the top of this blog.)
We are used to the idea of images being associated with companies or products, but not so in the nineteenth century. According to Alan Moore of the Museum of American Folk Art, “The figures were not product-identified in the sense of modern brand identities, rather they were place-identified. As residents of commercial enterprises, they gave a kind of constancy to the changing cityscape, or a claim to constancy…”
In short, if you lived in a nineteenth-century city where things were in continuous ferment, trade figures gave you a sense of security. They told you, “You can purchase a cigar here” or “You can get a drink in here.” Life goes on, despite all the disruption.
But there is a problem for us these days with these old trade figures. They are stereotypes and caricatures of racial or ethnic peoples. Alan Moore describes the variety of these images: “most notoriously the cigar store Indian warrior, the tobacco counter blackamoor, the tea shop Chinaman, and the bare-breasted Indian maid, Pocahontas, the brown body offered to the white conqueror…”
That is partly why, when I entered the museum portion of the American Art and Carousel Gallery at the Heritage Gardens and Museums, I was struck by the figures standing before me. I saw the usual cigar store Indians and winced. But I wasn’t prepared for the white “Dude.” And I was much less prepared for one other figure that intrigued me so much I’m going to research him, because I have no idea what sort of shop or product he might have been advertising. To be continued...
Jamie Morrison, The Nonist, “The Image Business.”
Alan Moore, “The Image Business: Shop and Cigar Store Figures in America.” Museum of American Folk Art, November 8, 1997 - January 11, 1998.