Julius Melchers and Figurecarving in 19th Century America

Julius Melchers' 'Captain Jack,' now on display at Gari Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont

Julius Melchers’ ‘Captain Jack,’ now on display at Gari Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont

In 1886, a New York journalist noted that, “Few objects, policemen and lampposts excepted, are more familiar to the public than the cigar store wooden Indian.” To his readers, particularly those living in cities along the East Coast and in the Midwest, this was stating the obvious. Countless numbers of wooden figures were carved in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most served as ship figureheads or shop signs, but they were used for many other purposes as well, including as architectural elements, garden statuary, and commemorative figures for parades and civic ceremonies.

During the more than four decades that Julius Theodore Melchers, father of Gari, operated a workshop in Detroit, he created all of these types of figures and more. Born in 1829 in Soest, Westphalia, Prussia, he was a sculptor and craftsman of the old school, who trained in the traditional German workshop system and then in Paris. He settled in Detroit in the mid-1850s, where he at first found his opportunities somewhat limited, but eventually adapted to his new environment and made many important contributions to Detroit’s emerging artistic community.

Melchers created many outstanding shop and cigar store figures during his long career, but the vast majority of them were done by shipcarvers, the men responsible for making figureheads and other types of ship decorations. A tightly knit group of professional carvers bound by family ties and master-apprentice relationships, they operated through a network of workshops in port cities and towns along the East Coast and, to a lesser extent, the Great Lakes.

The figurehead tradition had descended from antiquity, and continued to be popular until the end of the era of wooden-hulled sailing ships in the late nineteenth century. As for shop figures, the earliest examples in both Europe and America were usually either about half-lifesize or were designed to be small enough to place on counters in the interior of stores. During the decade of the 1840s, a new, larger figure emerged in the United States that came to be known as a show figure. By merging the tradition of full-size figureheads with that of the generally smaller shop figures, the carvers created an imposing sculptural form that was readily adaptable to the rapidly expanding and increasingly competitive American business environment.

Many of the most innovative developments came from New York City, which was the leading shipbuilding center in the United States from about 1820 until after the Civil War. Naturally enough, the city supported an active group of shipcarvers. Even so, they were never very numerous, as their work required great skill and a long apprenticeship, but paid very little. In the 1880s, a carver told a reporter that even at the height of the shipbuilding era in the 1850s, there were never more than a dozen master carvers in New York at any one time, and that at that moment there were no more than six. Over the course of three generations, most of these men worked in a similar style, and aided by a good number of apprentices, they produced thousands upon thousands of figures.

Fanciful images of Native Americans were by far the most popular, but especially after about 1860, any character that caught the public’s imagination could and would be skillfully personified, from the more traditional Turks and Scotsmen to up-to-date baseball players and fashionable women. As Melchers once noted,

I carved all sorts of Indians. Big Indians, little Indians, chiefs, and Indian queens. Sometimes the images represented real characters but they were oftener ideal figures. I made Blackhawks, Pontiacs, Hiawathas and Pocahontases.

… Sometimes a cigar dealer wanted a classical figure instead of an Indian. We carved several of them, with slight variations to indicate the cigar business. A statue of Pomona with a handful of cigars instead of apples, or Ceres, holding a bunch of tobacco leaves, instead of wheat, was a striking sign, and indicated classical proclivities on the part of the proprietor. Sometimes a patriotic fellow wanted a Goddess of Liberty or Uncle Sam. I have made several Bother Jonathans for customers with strong Yankee sentiments.

As products of a shared cultural and artistic imagination, figureheads and cigar store figures speak volumes about several important aspects of American social history, including racial and gender stereotyping, and the emergence of a national popular culture. Based on contemporary perceptions, they resonate with meaning, embodying traditional values while at the same time reflecting the attitudes, prejudices and trends of a rapidly developing society.

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