Unlike their more formal counterparts, folk art canes, by definition, were made by single, untrained artisans. Their purpose was to cast attention on the creator and not the carrier. Folk art canes were an expression of the artist’s skill and personality, bringing a sense of time, place and individuality to their sticks. Each stick is as unique as the carver, small pieces of sculpture really, offering the viewer a glimpse into the world of the carver and the ever changing character of the world in which they lived .
Although wooden canes with interestingly carved handles and folk art canes are roughly dated between the Civil War and World War I, it is often difficult to date period folk art canes. Materials, identifiable symbols carved into the stick, and possibly a distinctive carving or construction style are clues used to determine where and possibly by whom the stick was made, but many folk art canes cannot be dated or identified with any certainty.
There were known regional carvers using materials native to a narrow geographical location, but many woods are not easily identifiable as most canes were painted or stained, and if a ferrule is present, no wood is exposed to identify the specific type.
Period folk art canes were often decorated by the artists to identify themselves as individuals or members of a group, vehicles through which personal communication was made, perhaps celebrating an event like the Columbian Exposition, sporting event, fraternal emblems like Odd Fellows, or veteran’s group (GAR). Some carvers communicated through their carvings using words, portraits or other symbols related to their professions.
Almost all native animals from the natural world were captured by cane carvers, perhaps snakes the most common and the perfect form to wrap around the shaft. Human figures, themes of daily life, politics, sports, mythological creatures, religious figures, canes with interlocking pieces or cages for balls, were left by the carver to posterity in walking stick form.
Because canes are no longer fashionable, contemporary walking sticks are considered works of art rather than utilitarian objects, and sold more as general art.
One must consider the challenges faced by the carver, period or contemporary, working with a piece of wood perhaps 36″ in length and 1-1/2″ in width!
Folk art walking sticks and Black Forest attribution
Regarding “Black Forest” attribution for the walking stick detailed above, per Youssef Kadri, a name well known in the cane collecting world, “The term “Black Forest“ has been used and abused and became over time a “brand name” for all sorts of wood carvings. While there have been many recorded wood carving manufacturers for cuckoo clocks which made the reputation of the area, none is listed to have produced canes. Also, I never came across a cane with irrefutable hints that it was made in the “Black Forest.” The trees found in that area and consequently the woods are not suitable for walking sticks.”
Stick above: Carved from one piece of wood (maple?) to look like a closed umbrella. The drape and fold of the fabric right down to the button clasp and tips of the umbrella spines are well done. A natural knob top of the handle contrasts the carved draping. A white metal band around the handle reads, “J.H. Gillespie, Victoria, BC. The ferrule and umbrella cap are brass. The stick measures 36” long, the knob top is 2” x 1-3/4” x 3-3/4” with the tip being 3-5/8”. The very tip of one of the umbrella spines is missing, along with minor wear to the dark stain of the “fabric” part of the umbrella.
Above, a decorative Viennese cane with a huge fruitwood handle on its Malacca shaft with silver collar and bronze ferrule. The 6-3/4” high and 3” wide handle is well carved in the shape of a cockatiel with a nicely inclined head, large crest, strong bill, and with two inset, colored glass eyes. Embellished by a continuous use of over a whole century, this cane acquired over time a desirable, individual soul, revealed by aged surface with slight wear coupled to a splendid, warm toned patina. Overall length 38-1/2”. The motif of the cockatiel came into fashion with the first aviary appearing around 1860, giving to the public in major European cities, for the first time, the chance to see many of the exotic birds of the world.
1. Folk Art Canes – Personal Sculpture, George H. Meyer.