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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Carvings, Cigar-Store Indians, Hitching posts, Barbers' Poles

( Orginally published 1962 )



When today's advertising man has a new idea, his confreres eye him skeptically and say, "All right, let's roll it up in a ball of wax and toss it around a little:' When yesterday's store owner, who was also his own advertising man, had a new idea, his words on the subject were perhaps not as colorful but he would think it over a little and then hire a carver to make a figure that would be representative of his business.

After weeks of labor, the figure would be ready and would be proudly placed on display outside the door of the shop to let the passersby know the type of goods sold within. And if the figure was skillfully executed it would attract many viewers-and many buyers.

The purpose of advertising certainly has not changed, even though the gimmicks have. These older gimmicks, however, these carved figures of another day, are worth a great deal of money to the modern collector.

Perhaps, in our modern efforts to reach more people, we have neglected fine artistry. Perhaps this is one reason why collectors of today place such a high value on the advertising gimmicks of yesterday, for they are not only antiques but memories of a past which we will never see again.

All sorts of carved figures stood in front of the shops, and they were a familiar sight both in England and in America. Everyone who entered a shop passed one of these gaily painted figures as he went in.

Today their value is tremendous, depending, of course, upon condition, rarity, etc. A carved race track tout was recently appraised at over $2,000. Another shop figure, a captain, was appraised at over $3,000.

If you should find an odd figure, a real rarity, not just the runof-the-mill cigar-store Indian, the chances are, if it is in good condition, that it is worth a great deal.

Yet even the cigar-store Indian can be worth at least something, depending again on age and condition. These wooden Indians were a symbol of the old-time American tobacco shops. They were a very common sight in the United States.

The cigar-store Indian industry in America was a going business selling approximately three hundred figures yearly, yet today there are only a few left, some of them in museums and collections. But perhaps there are many more around-waiting in your neighborhood lumber yard or even in your attic.

Sometimes these "Indians" are in bad condition, but, if you can find a collector who really wants one, it is possible that he would be willing to buy it first and then rejuvenate it.

In Westchester, California, there is a tobacco shop called Clyde's Pipe Rack, and in the front of the store stands Princess Minnehaha -a one-hundred-year-old wooden beauty, one of the last of America's wooden Indians. Not too long ago, however, Princess Minnehaha was in very sad condition, but the owners of the shop, Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Strawn, scraped away at the layers of old paint until they were down to the original-then carefully they repainted her to her original colors. Today Princess Minnehaha stands once more in front of a tobacco shop, as lovely as she was a hundred years ago.

Certainly if you could find a wooden Indian, it is worth investigating. The collectors are so avid that all members of the "Society for the Preservation of the Wooden Indian" have sworn to ". . . never . . . destroy their Indians and to let the Society know if they ever want to dispose of them, so they can be passed along to other collectors."

Any wooden Indian you may find is worth something, but there are other types of wooden figures, like the "Race Track Tout" and the "Ship Captain," which are worth a great deal of money. They are, however, more rare and harder to find and therefore of much greater value than the more common Indians.

Many of these figures which were not Indians were English, since the British "cigar-store Indians" were not Indians at all but "black boys" and "smoke shop figures."

One smoke shop figure, a sultan, was recently appraised at $525 -certainly worth watching for.

No one knows where all of these figures are today. They were eventually taken off the streets because of sidewalk restrictions. These ordinances killed one of our traditions, by causing the cigarstore Indian to pass into history-and on to the treasure hunter's list.

Not eliminated by these sidewalk restrictions, but fading from the scene simply because the march of progress made them obsolete, were the old-fashioned hitching posts.

They were put up by shop proprietors for their customers' convenience, in much the same way today's store owners provide parking lots for their customers.

Today the hitching past is forgotten-except by the collectors, who will pay as much as $250 for a rare and fine example.

There is one other item, however, which has not been eliminated from the American scene. Neither sidewalk restrictions nor modern progress has caused the barber pole to fade from our streets. But it is the antique barber pole which you should watch for; the modern ones, of course, are worth something only to the barbershop owner and not the collector.

The very old barber poles were complete with red pole, a bowl, and a strip of cloth. The red pole represented both the color of blood and the stick which the patient gripped tightly while the barber-surgeon did his job of blood-letting. The bowl would collect the dripping blood. The strip of cloth was used by the barber-surgeon to bandage his patient when he was through.

The barber's pole with the bowl was a rarity in America, but there were many of the more common bowl-less types which are now disappearing from the scene because people who do not realize that they are worth anything either destroy or throw them away.

Even a nineteenth-century barber's pole is worth around $60, and the older ones, of course, are worth much more. Whether you find a wooden shop figure or an old barber's pole, do not throw it away or burn it or repaint it. It may be something a collector would buy in a minute-if you would just give him a chance.