Throughout the summer of 1888, Cincinnati erupted in celebration of its centennial, marking 100 years since the first settlers pulled ashore here. In the middle of the festivities, an unnamed reporter for the Cincinnati Post [2 July 1888] composed a fantasy in which he imagined all of the wooden cigar-store Indians in town brought to life one midnight. With the temporary gift of movement and speech, the statues gathered on the banks of the river to contemplate the pageant of the past century.
The gist of that fairy tale—that one hundred years of progress had done little to improve on the conditions that existed before the settlers arrived—is irrelevant to our story today. The important fact is the reporter’s estimate of the number of participants:
“The group consisted of about 200 wooden Indians that usually adorn the fronts of the Cincinnati cigar shops.”
Just how many cigar shops did Cincinnati have in 1888? A quick count of that year’s city directory reveals nearly 500 cigar and tobacco shops in a town of 290,000 people. If a large minority of these vendors plunked a wooden native on the sidewalk in front of his shop, it is entirely possible that there were, in 1888, something like 200 wooden statues of Native Americans in Cincinnati.
William C. Smith, in his delightful book, “Queen City Yesterdays,” recalls their ubiquity when he was a child living on Central Avenue:
“Indians were plentiful on the Avenue but they were of the inanimate type, constructed of wood, and stood on pedestals in front of cigar stores.”
With so many statues scattered around town, it makes another item from the Cincinnati Post all the more remarkable. Just 28 years after counting 200 wooden Indians, the Post [12 September 1916] published this squib in its Village Gossip column:
“By the way, what has become of the old cigar store Indian? So rare is he that if any cigar dealer who still keeps an Indian in front of his store will notify me to that effect, I will send or photographer to get a picture of him – I mean the Indian.”
In response to the Village Gossip, several readers directed the Post’s photographer to Nathaniel Aglar’s cigar store on Front Street near Broadway. Mr. Aglar claimed that his wooden sales associate had stood outside his store for 30 years and that the statue was 40 years old when he acquired it.
Twenty years onward, Mr. Aglar’s Indian had apparently disappeared because the Post [5 March 1938] could only locate two wooden Indians still standing outside Cincinnati tobacconists. “Chief Kusnick,” also known for unknown reasons as “Sam Pincus,” stood guard outside John Fugazzi’s cigar shop on East Sixth street and “Chief Mueller” guarded William Mueller’s store on East Fifth Street.
During their heyday, Cincinnati’s cigar-store Indians actively participated in the city’s street life, usually against their will. The local newspapers regularly published accounts along the lines of this item from the Enquirer [30 July 1876]:
“A young man, well known in the West End, went over the Rhine last night and dropped his wealth so freely around among the beer halls that he was soon in a frame of mind to avenge Custer. His first victim was a wooden Indian which was standing in front of a cigar store, innocently pointing people to the fine stock within. The warrior disposed of, the Avenger tried to get in his work on a policeman, whom he mistook for Sitting Bull. But he failed, and to-morrow Judge Lindemann will throw chuck-a-luck with him to see whether it shall be $5 and costs or $10.”
As late as November 1938, police arrested an inebriated waiter for assaulting Chief Mueller, thus ending a tradition of fifty years or more.
It wasn’t only drunks who attacked the statues. In 1848, the Cincinnati Commercial reported that a pack of dogs attacked a wooden Indian mounted outside a cigar store at Third and Sycamore. This must have been among the first such statues erected in the city.
And then there were the practical jokes. On a frosty night in December 1882 Cincinnati Police Sergeant Philip Rittweger discovered that some miscreants had hoisted a cigar-store Indian from its customary perch and dunked it into a horse trough on Freeman Avenue, where it was frozen fast. Sergeant Rittweger telephoned Sergeant James Young of the Oliver Street Station and informed him there was a drowned man in his district and foul play was suspected. Sergeant Young assembled a group of officers and rushed to the scene. On discovering the frozen statue, Young put out a call for Rittweger, who made himself scarce.
The cigar-store Indian began appearing in American cities during the 1840s as steamships began to replace the great sailing ships with their magnificently carved figureheads mounted at the prow. The streamlined steamships dispensed with such decoration, leaving a generation of woodcarvers looking for a new market. As the big sailing vessels were dismantled, woodcarvers found the weather-beaten pine masts to be exceptional material for carving cigar-store decorations. Soon, a painted Indian was as essential to the tobacconist as a red-striped pole was to a barber or three suspended balls to a pawnbroker.
What happened to Cincinnati’s substantial tribe of cigar-store totems? Mostly they disappeared as fashions changed. A sign hanging above the door was more visible than a statue at street level. City ordinances prohibited sidewalk obstructions. And, very importantly, wooden statues in a folk style were becoming quite collectable. As early as the 1930s, Cincinnati newspapers reported collectors paying $500 for an authentic cigar-store Indian.
The Cincinnati Post’s Village Gossip, now writing under a more distinguished byline as “Cincinnatus,” lamented the passing of this tribe [25 June 1936]:
“Cincinnatus used to know many a wooden Indian . . . a friendly, mellow spirit that seemed to summon Cincinnatus into the store to stay awhile, to talk with the proprietor about the price of cabbages and the state of the nation and the way the Reds were going. The unbusinesslike Indian was like an invitation to leisurely loitering in a cigar store which in the Indian’s time was more a club than a business. But what now? Cincinnatus buys his can of tobacco and is quickly on his way again. With the departure of the Indian, cigar stores have gone into mere trade, abandoning romance, philosophy and leisure.”