In my research on Flag desecration debates I stumbled upon interesting side discussions. As Congress considered passing a flag desecration act, the topic of the cigar store Indian loomed large in many newspapers. Here is an example from the Eureka Herald and Greenwood County Republican printed January 29, 1880. This Eureka is in Kansas. The article shows an early example of the commercial use and abuses of Native Americans for advertising purposes. The article drips with sarcasm and has a paternalistic undercurrent. Today cigar store Indians are a curio from the past, but the issue of appropriating the images and likenesses of Native Americans as emblems and mascots is an echo from history that has yet to be resolved.
As Americans take sides in the latest tempest as to what constitutes desecration of the United States' most sacred symbol (the flag) and it's cousin (the National Anthem) it is the perfect opportunity to look at a sliver of the history regarding this topic. Over the next few days I'll be featuring newspaper articles from the 19th century on a wide variety of subjects related to desecration of our national symbols. In this, put aside your team colors, the only colors allowed past this point are red, white, and blue, and allow yourself to see how the current squawks have deep roots that echo into the present.
The use of flags as symbols has long been a topic of controversy for our nation. What are the appropriate uses of the flag and how should it be displayed? Congress repeatedly dealt with the prickly issue of protecting the dignity of the flag. Bills were crafted to prohibit placing advertising on Old Glory recommending fines and imprisonment. Bills were introduced in 1880 and 1890 to that effect, neither of which went anywhere (see above). It is interesting that Congress appeared to have more concern during the late 19th century on commercial uses of the flag above other abuses. Today star-spangled advertising is all the rage. Old Glory has become dresses, trousers, bikinis, rain gear, hats, boots, beverage containers, smokes, appliances, pens, blankets, buckets, and just about anything that the American entrepreneur can imagine. Seeing Old Glory on a handkerchief that can be used to cover a balding pate as well as serve for many a less noble purpose, hardly raises an eyebrow today.
The above image is a newspaper clipping from the Mohave County Miner of May 31, 1890. This was a widely circulated newspaper article and can be found in sources throughout the nation. I have yet to find what happened to the bill after coming out of committee.
Terry A. Del Bene
Writer- "Have Words, Will Travel"