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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Punch cigar store figure; attributed to the shop of carver Samuel Robb; 75 inches high; late-19th century sold for $187,200. Photo courtesy of Pook & Pook.
Standing vigil outside tobacco shops in towns and villages all over America in the 19th century was Samuel A. Robb’s cigar store Indians.

Like barber shop poles, these silent fixtures, fashioned mostly out of white pine from the odds-and-ends of ship spars or recycled railroad ties--are the art work of the everyday man. Today we call them folk artists.

Robb opened his Canal Street wood-carving shop in 1886 just across the street from what is now Chinatown in Manhattan, the largest shop of its kind in New York.

The first floor of his two-story building was a long room with dirt floors mixed with deep deposits of wood chips. Wooden squaws and unpainted baseball players lined the wall.

Paper and cardboard patterns were scattered around the floor and signs of shaping, carving and painting were everywhere. From the rafters upstairs hung a pulley built especially for raising and lowering dozens of wood advertising creations.

The cigar store Indian and the “Punch” figure are two examples of the types of advertising carvings chiseled each month. These sidewalk figures were made to catch the attention of passersby and let them know tobacco was sold inside. The Punch figure with his raised forefinger and dirty-old-men leer coaxed you into the store.

The average cigar smoker in America in the late-1800s couldn't read the words smoke shop or, for that matter, any other signage. So these cigar store figures pointed the way.

They were essential to business. Carvers like Robb put out catalogues of product lines and constantly updated and expanded them.

The carved Indians were inspired by Native Americans who first introduced the exotic weed to European explorers. Most of these carvers never even saw a real Native American. So the faces look more like white men in Native dress.

Native American faces were sometimes interchanged with Afro-American faces revealing the everyday bigotry of the era.

Not only was Samuel A. Robb known for carving tobacconists’ figures, he also chiseled Barnum & London circus-wagon carvings, dentists’ signs, and eagles, plus Scottish Highlanders, West Point cadets, and even Sir Walter Raleigh.

Robb called himself an artist in wood and also carved artificial hands which he said were capable of making every movement the human hand could.

Today these life-size cigar store Indians and Punch figures have disappeared from sidewalks. Fortunately, they live on in private collections and shops. It’s an advertising art form that speaks to the best in folk art and the worst in racial stereotyping.

Carving in these advertising pieces, done mostly by the eye, paid little attention to realism. The workmen called themselves cutters not sculptors or carvers. Many worked in each other’s shops which accounts for the similarities seen in cigar store Indians and other figures.

A business geared mostly toward mass production, the owner of a business would hire cutters to produce figures for sale. Rarely were works signed, Robb incised his or his firm’s name on the pedestals of many of his figures which helps in identifying and cataloging them.

The better carvings are truly American folk art.

On April 18, Pook & Pook Auctioneers in Downingtown, Pa., offered a Punch cigar store figure attributed to the shop of Samuel Robb in its antique auction.

The 75 inch high polychromed decorated figure sat on its original base inscribed “Cigars Tobacco/Havana Cigars/Smoker’s Articles”. The late-19th century Punch was in remarkably untouched condition and sold for $187,200.

The charm of this little guy is hard to capture with words.

The value of any carving is determined by condition, the artistic integrity of the form and the quality and intricacy of the carving. Original paint is a huge plus.

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