Once on Rye’s High Street

Once on Rye’s High Street

Tobacconist's Indian 1Two figures discovered during building work on Rye’s High Street  were originally used to signpost a tobacconist’s shop. Resembling others known to have been used about 1750, they are curious in two ways.

The custom of using wooden Indians as visual symbols for a tobacconist arose in America.  Tobacco was associated with Indians  and potential customers might be illiterate or a recent immigrant,  so American Indians were used as symbols  in the way that barbers used striped poles, locksmiths keys, tailors scissors and shoemakers boots.  

Unlike most other symbols however, the wooden statues stood on the pavement or steps in front of a shop instead of being attached to the wall. 

Tobacconist's Indian 2

The more important difference is that the Rye statues are not Indians.  They are African.

British merchants were part of the trade linking exports of consumer and manufactured goods to North America and the Caribbean – who supplied tobacco, rum and sugar in return.  

British ports such as Bristol were at the same time involved in the slave trade, and English merchants adopted African rather than American Indian figures for their tobacconist signs.


Another discovered tocacconist’s object in our museum is this. Do you recognise it? 

Tobacco shredder

It is a shredder/grinder. Tobacco leaves were put in the shredder, then you turned the handle and your shredded tobacco came out of the opening at the bottom. Tobacconists dealt with all kinds of related items – pipes, humidors, cigar cutters, ashtrays – and shredders.

First posted in From Our Collection on 8th February 2013
Last updated: 22nd March 2013
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