Some canes were more than walking sticks
Canes used for utilitarian purposes generally don’t elicit much comment. They stood perhaps in an ornate oak cane holder, ready for the gentleman of the house to choose as he left for the day.
When canes were at their most popular during the 19th century, a true gentleman would no more go out for any type of a formal call than would the average businessman through the 1980’s would have gone out without a tie. Just as ties were chosen, Victorian gentlemen took the same care in choosing the proper cane to carry.
Because they were so popular, canes were produced in a wide variety of styles, materials, decorative elements and even functions. Tradesmen carried canes containing tools they would use in their business. Canes were made for men who bought butter wholesale. They could stick their cane into the vats of butter, turn the handle, and a scoop at the bottom of the cane would take a sample. When the cane was removed, the buyer would learn if the vat’s center had been filled with lard. Similar canes could be found for grain buyers.
Undertakers had canes that would screw down the lids of coffins. Musicians had canes that would fold open into music stands or musical instruments. Gamblers had canes that would fold open, making small tables. The table’s top was created from tightly stretched silk. Photographers could choose from a variety of canes which contained small cameras.
This type of cane is called a gadget cane–one that had other uses than just as a walking stick. As indicated in the article “Antique Canes and Walking Sticks” in this website, according to legend, the first use of a gadget cane led to the modern silk industry.
Gadget canes were made for all purposes, including protection. One weapon cane could become a mace–a ball of sharp spikes swinging on the end of a chain. Canes with swords hidden in their shafts were quite popular. Spring-driven knives which shot from the tip of the cane and were powerful enough to split boards were produced. The tops of some canes detached and formed the handle for small deadly daggers; others sprayed chemicals. Many of these canes were so finely crafted that it was hard to tell if the cane was a weapon unless the owner showed how it would open. The two sections locked and would only release when a hidden button was pushed.
Many gadget canes also were firearms. They could be powered either by gunpowder or by compressed air. Canes were produced that were combinations of daggers and pistols, or even with permanent bayonets attached. The concept of a pump-barrel shotgun, popular as a weapon of choice in our more action-packed films, can be seen in a cane made in the late 1870s. Simply grasping the cane’s shaft, pulling it back and pushing forward would cause the gun to fire. It held 30 rounds.
Most canes were just walking sticks, like those displayed at the museum. Their purpose as a walking aid was, for the most part, unnecessary. They were simply a necessary part of the well-dressed person’s wardrobe. These sticks can be quite spectacular. Craftsmen searched all over the world for the most interesting material which could be made into canes. Precious metals, stones and rare woods were incorporated. Intricate carvings of known and unknown creatures can be seen in bone, ivory, wood and metals.
Though no longer seen as necessary, most antique canes are used and seen in exactly the same way as they were when new. They are art objects, the more unique the better, something to be admired rather than actually used.
It is generally agreed that there are three basic categories of canes/walking sticks:
2. Folk art
3. Gadget (sometimes called “dual purpose” or “system”).
The category “Gadget canes” includes:
a. City canes
b. Outdoor canes
c. Professional canes
d. Weapon canes
Of course some sticks defy simple categorization, and categories may overlap. Given the great many sticks produced over the past several hundred years, the distinctions outlined in the following sub-articles are meant to provide a basic foundation and guide for organizing your cane collection.