MIAMI BEACH — That the culture of the marginalized is utilized by their own oppressors — for advertising, for fun — is a callous peculiarity of colonization (and xenophobia). Once they strip their victims of everything else, it’s easy, it seems, for colonizers to take what they’d like from them.
At the end of the 19th century, advancements in printing technology allowed tobacco companies to utilize color and clever imagery in their advertisements, many of them referencing where the tobacco plant was grown and who’d smoked it first. In “Images of Native Americans in Advertising,” an article by William M. O’Barr for Advertising & Society Review, he writes:
By the end of the 19th century, images of Native Americans had become commonplace in American advertising. Almost all of these images had nothing to do with the real lives of Native Americans nor even advertising products and services to them. Rather, these uses were gratuitous and, according to many critics, harmful from the point of view of the people represented.
Selling the Golden Leaf: Exoticism in Tobacco Advertising is a small installation drawn from The Wolfsonian-Florida International University Library collection and curated by Nicolae Harsanyi, associate librarian. The show is filled with tobacco ads, books, and labels from around 1888 through 1944 depicting the “exotic” environments stumbled upon and subsequently plundered by Europeans, and the indigenous people who lived there. One 1909 book, for instance, Oud‐Djember Agricultural Company, focuses on a Dutch tobacco company and the Javanese workers who grew the product.
The majority of the advertisements are European — indigenous America was still wildly exotic in the collective imagination — and the work is displayed sensitively and frankly. “As the subtitle of the installation mentions, exoticism is the show’s main concern, and we approached the content on view as reflecting Western cultural constructions of indigenous people,” Harsanyi told me over email. “The role of visual culture in justifying colonial exploitation is an important issue for our collection, and one that we frequently address in our exhibitions and programs.”
The images, even when they strive for accuracy, ultimately serve to perpetuate troubling stereotypes. In a 1925 label for Ojibwa Bright Fine Cut Tobacco by the Scotten-Dillon Co., an Ojibwe man holds the tobacco leaves in his left hand—closer to the heart — as per tradition. In a book illustrated by designer Eric M. Simon, Amerika, there’s an image of a white colonizer, clearly being taught to smoke, rather generously, by an indigenous American. A 1930 advertising display card by the Crüwell tobacco company, based in Germany, features a tribal chief with a pipe; an accompanying placard reads: “The chief kept a special pipe with a long decorated stem called a peace pipe. The stem could be held between quarreling individuals until they reached an accord; at which point they would begin smoking together.”
That’s true, and in fact, when early English settlers came to Virginia, they were initially welcomed by the indigenous population, including Wahunsenacawh (also known as Powhatan), chief of the Powhatan/Tsenacommacah people, who occupied Tidewater Virginia and part of the Eastern Shore. A component of this welcoming process included tobacco ceremonies — one can imagine peace pipes were shared. But the settlers’ ensuing actions were nothing short of horrifying, and cheerful depictions of slavery and exoticism are jarring. Selling the Golden Leaf does a good job of presenting a wide array of ads that, at once, espoused and fetishized indigenous Americans. Advertising was just one whitewashed, misleading, heavily abridged component of the much larger European story of Western expansion and development. There can’t be a sense of pain or destruction in a tobacco ad, only the beauty of the indigenous population and their homes.
Take, for example, a 1907 postcard featuring the official seal of the Jamestown Settlement — the first permanent English settlement in the Americas — created by the Jamestown Amusement & Vending Co. in Norfolk, Virginia. A wreath of corn and tobacco surrounds the tower of the Jamestown Church, with Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan and wife of tobacco planter John Rolfe, floating above it, like an elegant effigy. There’s no reference to the first documented Africans in Jamestown, who worked as indentured servants in the tobacco fields and eventually became slaves, or of the slowly worsening relations between the English and the natives — due to the English’s relentless usurping of the land — or of Pocahontas’s capture for ransom in 1613. It is majestic, devoid of a nuanced backstory, and appealing: a successful advertisement not only for tobacco, but for the mythology of America, its indigenous population given their own, ironically European aesthetic.
Work by the aforementioned Eric M. Simon is everywhere in the exhibition. A graphic designer and illustrator who — according to the show’s placard — “worked in Berlin and London in the decades between the two world wars before emigrating to the United States,” Simon is said to have “concentrated on depictions of eighteenth-century life, including his work for German tobacco manufacturers, which often focused on relationships between colonists and American Indians.” The diversity of his stylistic renderings is vast, and his depictions of black slaves and snuff addiction in his Tobacco through the Ages: A History of the Divine Herb (1930) series are consistently unsettling. Indeed, Simon’s work prompted the idea for this exhibition in the first place.
“The library had received a donation of materials from Christopher Simon, featuring the work of his father, Eric Simon,” Harsanyi explained. “Generally, when the museum or the library receive a larger donation of artifacts, a selection of these is displayed either in the library vestibule or in a gallery elsewhere in the museum, thus honoring the donation. While reviewing these materials I noticed that some of them were advertising various products of tobacco manufacturers from Germany, the country where Eric Simon worked before coming to the US. The pervasive presence of Native Americans in these images prompted me to go through the general collection of the library looking for similar instances in which natives, not only from the American continent, but also from other tobacco producing regions of the world, were employed by advertisers to convey the exoticism attached to the tobacco products.”
Exoticism in advertising is a trend that would continue throughout the century, not simply in Europe but in the United States. The relative scarcity of this kind of fetishization in advertising is a new phenomenon. Selling the Golden Leaf is a reminder of where this kind of imagery belongs: in an archive, shown as art — and problematic art at that.
Selling the Golden Leaf: Exoticism in Tobacco Advertising continues at The Wolfsonian-Florida International University (1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida) through April 1.