No. 53 on Main Street

I was at the Delaware Antiques Show this past November and happened upon a seven-foot-tall carved wood “Indian Chief” (using the parlance of its time). This guy was a beauty: fully intact with no signs of damage with subdued bits of colored paint hinting at his glory days out in front of some cigar store on, you guessed it, Main Street. He was selling for $80,000. (I decided not to buy it…for obvious reasons.)

Main Street Indian Chief, Hoosick, New York. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Fig. 1. Main Street Indian Chief, Hoosick, New York.                                             Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Although I hadn’t anticipated it, Mr. 80K Chief was just the beginning of several days in the Winterthur Library researching mass-produced statuary and emblems that began to furnish the commercial districts of American towns, both large and small, during the last decades of the nineteenth century(Fig. 1). Although various emblems—including eagles, giant tools or notions, and Indian Chiefs—have been around since the 1600s to signal to consumers that a shop was ready for customers, the mass production of these items escalated after the Civil War. As with most of the material on this blog, there is too much to say on the topic of emblems on Main Street (you’ll have to buy the book), but there’s one story I compiled that’s just snappy enough to lay down here.

And so here we go…

At the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida, is a carved wood statue of an Native American figure, on loan to them from the Smithsonian. It’s likely on loan to this Florida museum because at some point in the last 25 years, the Smithsonian decided that the figure was a Seminole. The date of the piece isn’t certain, but it is believed to be from around 1885–90, and it is attributed to Samuel A. Robb. I’m convinced this date is wrong, however, because of the fascinating story to follow.

Robb was what was called a “house carver” at Wm. Demuth & Co., a firm that specialized in cigar store trade figures and other emblems during the 1870s to 1890s (Fig. 2). Although Demuth mostly produced fancy pipes and show figures like the cigar store Indians (Fig. 3), other businesses sold all kinds of emblems: various types of Indians, ladies of liberty, eagles on balls, lions with mortars (I’m still not sure what that’s about…), locks, and other things. They livened up Main Street with decoration and fantasy and a bit of civic art.

Wm. Demuth & Co. catalogue cover, circa 1870. From tobaccopipeartistory.blogspot.com.

Fig. 2. Wm. Demuth & Co. catalogue cover, circa 1870. From tobaccopipeartistory.blogspot.com.

Finding that wood statuary was on the costlier side to produce (hand carving was no quick task), not to mention highly susceptible to splitting and weathering from rain, Demuth sought another media for his wares:  cast zinc. Around 1869 Demuth began working with a New York foundry that specialized in zinc work by the name of M. J. Seelig & Co. to have molds done of Robb’s Native American figure. These molds then were used to cast bunches of zinc figures. The 1872 Demuth catalogue identifies the statue as “Indian Chief No. 53.”  Demuth exhibited these at both the Philadelphia Centennial Expo and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. They were a hit!  Here is one that still has some of his paint, auctioned off in 2002 for $17,500. Another Demuth No. 53 was sold off at Murphy’s Auction house in 2011 as part of a large lot of objects that had belonged to a cigar museum in Tampa, Florida.

Wm. Demuth & Co. zinc figure, ca. 1870s.

Fig. 3. Wm. Demuth & Co. zinc figure, ca. 1870s.

No. 53 wasn’t only available through Demuth, however. Demuth’s casts largely went to cigar store owners before the mid-1890s, but just before and after 1900, when having a big Native American statue in front of your smoke shop had become unfashionable, No. 53 became a public monument. Many were sold to towns across the nation through J. W. Fiske and J. L. Mott, other New York companies that specialized in fountains and other iron work and zinc statuary. A little internet digging and book research reveals a host of Indian Chief No. 53s dotted around the country, at cross-roads and in public parks, many of which are (or were, some are no longer around) located in small towns: Kankakee, IL; Muscatine, IA; Ishpeming, MI; Brandywine, DE; Barberton, OH; Sharpsburg, PA; Point Richmond, CA; Fargo, ND; Akron, OH; Tilton, NH; Calhoun, GA; Mount Kisco, NY; Lodi, Ohio; Mingo, WV; Forest Glen, MD; and Schenectady, NY. In all, there are 25 known to have existed or still exist (Figs. 4, 5).

Indian Chief statue, Mingo, West Virginia.

Fig. 4. Indian Chief statue, Mingo, West Virginia.

Of course, he’s generally not called “No. 53” in these locales. The people of the towns have, through local lore, given him other names, including “Lawrence the Indian” (Schenectady, NY) and “Hiawatha” (Forest Glen, MD). He’s been identified as Mohawk, an Iroquois, a Mascoutin, and a member of other tribes—typically informed by where a copy ended up. The one in Tilton, New Hampshire, is named Squantum, named after a Pawtuxet man who served as interpreter, guide, and instructor to the Plymouth Pilgrims.

No. 53s also occasionally identify J. W. Fiske or J. L. Mott as the “artist” because the only names on the statues are often the vendor’s marks. These townspeople would, I’m guessing, be a little sad to know that Lawrence was ordered out of a catalogue and not hand-crafted in some sculptor’s workshop. But I would caution against such disappointment at the mass-produced origins of their civic sculpture. There’s a wonderful and heroic story in small town America’s reach, through the nation’s rail system, from their little public parks to the great island of Manhattan, sourcing statues and fountains to adorn their public spaces (Fig. 6).

Schenectady, New York, statue, photo from flickr member sebastien.barre

Fig. 5. Schenectady, New York, statue, photo from flickr member sebastien.barre

No. 53 is public art for Main Street America. These companies offered budding towns and ambitious civic groups access to an assortment of decorative material to spruce up their public gathering spots, adorn their sidewalks, and demonstrate their awareness of national movements in civic and municipal art. And it’s also important to remember that although the objects may have been ordered from catalogues, their role in the communities in which they reside is personal, folkloric, and rich in local memory. They are not just named, but cleaned, occasionally decorated, fundraised for, photographed, and written about. They are civic art because they engage the civic aspect of town life. No. 53 may live all over the U.S.A. in his copied form, but he also lives locally. And that’s what makes him such a fantastic micro-historical figure in the story of the small town American Main Street.

The boy with the leaking boot is also a common feature in American town public spaces. From J. L. Mott catalogue, 1893, Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library

Fig. 6. The boy with the leaking boot is also a common feature in American town public spaces. From J. L. Mott catalogue, 1893, Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library

To learn more about zinc sculpture in America, see Carol Grissom’s excellent book on the subject.

To learn about cigar store and show figures statuary, see Artists in Wood by Frederick Fried.

To learn more about Demuth and lots and lots about the artistry of antique smoking paraphernalia, see The Tobacco Pipe Artistry.

This blog was posted by Kirin Makker. Makker is a 2013–14 Winterthur Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Architectural Studies at Hobart William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. This piece was originally posted on her own blog, The Myths of Main Street. She describes her blog as her “thinkspace” for a book she’s writing also called, The Myths of Main Street.

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One Response to No. 53 on Main Street

  1. Bill & Elaine Pease says:

    A wonderful blog & posting about a subject that we knew very little about. Thanks very much.

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