It cannot be overstated that when assigning a historical period to a given cane/walking stick, although the handle will yield much evidence, workmanship, materials and decorations found on other parts of the stick may prove as essential as the handle. This is especially true today when so many sticks are “marriages,” or made from parts of other sticks.
Cane handles 1600 to 1800
Canes of the period 1600 until about 1800, find an almost complete absence of handles which are either curved or set at right angles to the shaft. Handles of this period are extensions of the shaft, in the form of elongated knobs, sometimes cylindrical, sometimes flaring, sometimes bulbous, and occasionally in a scrolled shape. The only real departure from this pattern has been observed in European, notably French, examples of the so-called opera handle. A good many of the handles during the late 17th to the mid 18th century were made of ivory, some of polished bone and others of gold or silver.
The only real departure from this pattern has been observed in European, notably French, examples of the so-called opera handle. Saint-Cloud porcelain was a type of soft-paste porcelain produced in the French town of Saint-Cloud from the late 17th to the mid 18th century. A good many of the handles during this time were of ivory, some of polished bone and others of gold or silver.
Cane handles 1800 to 1840
Canes of the period 1800 to 1840, handles continued as in the preceding style period. Ivory seems to have become more popular. The form of the handle had developed more fully and the straight or cylindrical grips disappeared almost completely. The bulbous, turned knob appeared on many sticks, most often made of ivory, more fully developed with slightly bolder, swelling forms, almost mushroom-shaped, and towards the end of this period more bulbous or pear-shaped. Occasionally these handles were of materials other than ivory, such as wood, horn, gold or silver. From the end of the 18th century until about 1840, the antler grip was of a very characteristic shape, made from the portion of the antler nearest the skull, utilizing its natural “rosette” as a decorative feature. The shank of the antler protruded about an inch or so from the rosette, was polished smooth and often fitted with a small cartouche of silver, gold or brass, with the owner’s initials or name.
Just before or after 1850 a new form of cane handle is seen of a flaring eight-sided knob with an inlaid convex top of the same material as the handle.
Continuing with canes of the period 1800 to 1840, early primitive carvings/folk art canes from this period are seen, although difficult to date. Carvings appear to represent important figures of the day, serpents and animals, and Masonic symbols. Makers marks were unusual.
Cane handles 1840 to 1865
Bulbous knobs which had dominated the preceding era have all but disappeared, and now encountered are handles set at right angles to the shafts. The L-shaped handle appears in approximately 1840. Materials continue to be ivory or bone with some gold and silver with gutta percha and horn showing an appearance at the latter portion of this period. During the earlier part of the 1850’s, the modern curved or crook handle makes its appearance, sometimes ending in a flat cut with a metal cap. Occasional examples of crutch or opera handles are seen in America, but more prevalent in continental Europe. L-shaped or rounded L-shape, sometimes with metal, ivory or bone end caps, are seen.
Opera handle (I have seen this shape referred to as “Derby” in contemporary sticks.)
The L-shaped handles of the 1840-1865 period were seen in two piece construction of polished bone, and at times the vertical members were decorated in high relief. After the Civil War, noted are ivory L-shaped handles, and pistol grips appearing.
Pistol grip handle
Cane handles 1865 to 1920
Cane handles of the period 1865-1920 although lacking a distinctive style, offered a limitless variety of forms, decoration and material. Of course the modern, utilitarian crook handle shape had the advantage of freeing one hand while hooking the cane over the forearm. Popular styles during this time included flaring and swelling knobs of gold or gold plate and L-shaped handles made of antler. American silver handles begin to be marked with “Sterling” and gold handles begin to show the “karat” markings. European gold and silver continue to display the required hallmarks. The use of mother of pearl is seen more frequently the latter half of the 19th century.
Gold handled canes were very popular from approximately 1870 to 1910. Mounted on ebony, these handles frequently bear inscriptions engraved on a smooth panel surrounded by an overall pattern of incised scrolls and flowers.
Out of the conventions of the “Grand Army of the Republic” which consisted of Union veterans of the Civil War, came interesting “G.A.R.” canes, with handles of pewter, the first an L-shaped example, the second a rather milord-like shaped handle, perhaps with a bit more flaring at the top, bearing General Grant’s portrait.
Other cane handle shapes:
Skittle shaped handle
Semi-crook or modified crook handle
Crook or umbrella handle – common from 1860 onward
Antler handled canes
Pear shaped handle
Shepherd’s crook handle
1. Monek, Francis H., Canes through the Ages, P. 88.
2. Stein, Kurt, Canes & Walking Sticks.