History of antique canes/walking sticks

The exact point in time that man first picked up and made use of what we commonly refer to as a cane or walking stick is unknown. However throughout history, man has been aided by his cudgel, spear, sword, staff, scepter, rapier, crosier, or baton, used as a weapon, badge of office, symbol of authority and faith, or simply as a travel aid or means of support in old age. In past centuries, well-situated gentleman and ladies were seldom seen without a walking stick in hand boasting handles of precious metals and jewels, serving as symbols of wealth, power and social stature, much more a fashion accessory than walking aid. Of course the dictates of society have changed enormously since then and today the use of a cane is most likely utilitarian in nature, as an aid for the elderly and infirm to get around. Indeed, the stick has served many purposes throughout history, in fact evolving right alongside us. As a coveted collectible object, canes are a popular item given their fascinating history, workmanship and possible hidden treasures.

Today, the terms cane and walking stick are used interchangeably, their distinguishing characteristics lost in antiquity. However there are at least two explanations of how the term “cane” became part of our lexicon. One recognized explanation is, in the Western world after the 16th century with the importation and use of a great variety of reeds, canes, palms, rattans and bamboo to make shafts, the best and most coveted being “Malacca,” the term “cane” was born.  Explanation two gives rise to the term cane long before then, to the time of the Romans. It is known that dogs in great numbers infested the streets of both Roman and Italian cities. Packs of hungry dogs were a very real threat, and it was customary for pedestrians to carry “stout birchen cudgels, armed at one extremity with a short, sharp pike, for the purpose of defending themselves against these demi-savage animals. This cudgel, by a natural substitution of cause for effect, was called CANI, the dative singular for CANIS, which meant literally “for a dog.” A more significant and befitting term than which could not have been chosen. The plural of CANIS is CANES and this is the precise appellation by which they are now known.”1

In ancient history, Greek Amphorae depict many uses of the cane and staff. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, the king was recognized by the staff he carried. When Howard Carter in 1923 opened the tomb of young King Tutankhamen, the archaeologist discovered over 130 walking sticks, many beautiful, some made of gold, and some elaborately carved—dating back to the year 1358 B.C., more than 3300 years ago.

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There are also many biblical references to the cane, both in the Old and New Testaments; for example, biblical accounts describe Moses and Egyptian priests dueling with their staffs. In the Book of Genesis, in the story of Cain and Abel, Cain used a stick to slay his brother Abel. Perhaps the word “cane” was acquired from this biblical story.

Suffice it to say, the first canes were no doubt little more than tree branches used for support and protection. Indeed, the cane has always been a form of protection whether by design or circumstance. Imagine traveling on unknown and possibly unfriendly roads, the comfort felt in carrying your walking stick for protection. It was an indispensable weapon, tool and support for the weary traveler

Moving up the time line, and perhaps one of the first references to a dual purpose stick, in 552 A.D., two Byzantine priests smuggled silkworms out of China in hollow walking sticks and into the South of Europe, used to establish a silk factory to produce silk cloth for the royal family in an age where textile production was a vitally important industry, bringing ensuing wealth to the Italian valleys (and death to the priests had they been caught!).

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In Europe during the 10th century, scepters came to symbolize the powers of the king. The king’s power over the people was represented by the scepter in his right hand while the scepter in his left represented justice.2

During the age of the Crusades (1095-1291), hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and Crusaders traveled to the Holy Land. They were not empty handed; “At this time, it was a stout, strong stick about five feet high with a pointed metal spike at the bottom to dig into the earth on steep inclines and to fend off ferocious animals and dangerous brigands. About ten inches from the top there was a protuberance upon which to rest the hand so it would not slip downward in traveling. This pilgrim’s cane was called a bourdon and it soon evolved to where the top portion was designed to be hollow and could be unscrewed from the lower portion to conceal therein religious relics and valuables. Already it was becoming a dual purpose cane.”3 Many items were smuggled in the concealed hollow of the bourdon, a source of private wealth and in some cases national advantage–in a pilgrims staff, brought over from Greece, was the first head of saffron, at a time when it was death to take a plant out of that country.

Portraits depicting important people from the Middle Ages depict the grandeur of the sticks they carried. Canes were becoming an important part of one’s personal presentation, and accordingly were fashioned with great care. Other holders of power were also presented with staffs of office to symbolize their authority. “Bishops, priests, judges and military commanders all carried staffs representing the power and authority of their offices. This practice would continue on into the 17th century. In this context, it is interesting to note that it is customary for the president of the United States to receive a presentation cane upon entering office.”4

Throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, England’s and France’s kings and noblemen are depicted in prints and paintings wearing elaborate canes of precious metals with jeweled accents. “Canes and staffs are so often part of the portraits of the period that they are named “cane-staff pictures.”5 It appears that the walking stick became a widely accepted accessory of elegance and social prominence during the 16th and 17th centuries introduced to society by the ruling elite.

It was said that cane usage was governed by a special etiquette, and “The well-mannered bearer of a walking stick is said to have been expected not to carry it under his arm, nor lean upon it, nor was it considered socially acceptable to bring a cane on a visit to an important person. Indeed it is said that a walking stick was not permissible in the presence of the king.”6

Frequently seen in portraits of the 17th century, the subject is shown with a walking stick, carried in addition to the customary sword. By the middle of the 18th century, however, the carrying of a sword was largely replaced by the walking stick.

17th century Americans initially included settlers with backgrounds of wealth and cultivation who possessed fashionable wardrobes and accessories which accompanied then to the New World. However the Puritans who were in power passed laws outlawing the use of these luxuries, prohibiting the adornment of silver, gold, and jewels consistent with “immodest and extravagant fashion displays.” Homemade dress was the norm, and the typical American citizen of the time carried a stout walking stick as most traveled on foot. Sticks were also seen decorated with eagles during this time.

In 17th and 18th century England and on the continent, canes continued to be a requirement for the fashionably dressed.  A great deal of money was spent in collecting elaborately jeweled canes, adorned with precious stones and chased gold, and jewelers busily kept up with the demand. Napoleon was a cane fancier. So were Voltaire and Rousseau. Canes were sold on the streets of London and Paris. Toward the latter part of the 18th century, less elaborate canes were becoming the norm as cane carrying very slowly trickled down to the middle class.

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Demand for sticks continued to rise in the 19th century, and was so great that craftsmen, jewelers and manufacturers could hardly keep up. The Industrial Revolution brought tremendous change to the world. With the burgeoning masses gaining access to better jobs, the status of the cane further extended to include those who during earlier times could not afford the luxury or status of the walking stick, the middle and lower classes. With tremendous demand for canes, technological development and advancement in tools and machinery, vast increases in production capabilities and reduced production costs, and industry was born. It is during this time that gadget canes make an appearance. From the mid-19th century on, Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna were the hubs of cane manufacturing and employed thousands of individuals, with strong competition from the English by the 1870’s. To meet the demand, plantations from around the world were dedicated to growing the raw materials used to manufacture walking sticks. However as the 19th century came to a close, so too did the wearing of canes, and by the mid-20th century, canes were used primarily by hikers and climbers, or as an orthopedic aid.

Canes were used during times of political upheaval, worn to demonstrate allegiance to one cause or another. A simple ivory knob with plain rings carved into it is a prime example, as when light was shined upon this unassuming knob handle, a shadow of Napoleon’s profile was cast, identifying the bearer as a supporter of the overthrown emperor (picture below). Canes were used to identify members of a variety of organizations. The Freemasons carried their society’s three-sided cane to symbolize their loyalty.

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Above: Napoleon ivory shadow cane, perhaps English, ca. 1860.
Above: Vinaigrette cane

One can find explanations for cane design consistent with the history of major social, economic and political issues of the time.
For example, during the 18th and 19th centuries, ladies of society carried a “vinaigrette” cane to protect them from a variety of ailments (picture above). Throughout history, the medicinal qualities of vinegar had been proclaimed.  A sponge was soaked in this healing elixir and then placing in the small vessel with holes located in the handle of her cane,  A vital accessory, should a lady feel faint due close proximity to illness or disease, she had at her disposal her trusty vinaigrette enclosed in her cane to protect her.

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Above: Known as “La Diabolique,” “La Terrible” or “The Redoutable,” with pointed, retractable razors or spikes, French, circa 1870, often prohibited in public places.

During the civil unrest of 19th century France, canes were often outlawed in public places and especially during public gatherings as the potential for concealed weapons was great. This ever present threat engendered enormous fear by the gendarmerie entrusted with keeping public order. Such canes might conceal swords, spikes and guns. French agitators used canes with hidden and retractable razors or spikes affectionately called by their carriers “La Diabolique,” “La Terrible” or “The Redoutable.” (Picture above.) These weapons of terror were used to incapacitate police both on foot and on horses, in crowded gatherings, by slashing their legs and ankles. Of course when the police searched for the perpetrators, the weapons were already retracted in the shaft of an unassuming looking cane, and the offenders remained undiscovered.

Of course, cane usage was not limited to Europe and the United States but developed concurrently in other cultures. African canes were carved with highly symbolic carvings and were traditional badges of power since the ancient dynasties of Egypt. African canes continue to denote the position of authority, religion and purpose in the everyday lives of their carriers. Early African-American folk artists tended to carve cane handles into heads or faces.

Asian canes continued to be fashioned from bamboo adorned with ivory, mother-of-pearl or mahogany handles carved to represent species native to the region such as monkeys, elephants, birds and lizards.

Above: Japanese hand carved bamboo, total length 36″, knob is a carved bird approximately 4.25″. Atypical form in that top is not root ball but carved bird. Cane is completely carved except for the bottom 9.5″ which is not. Carving shows two birds in addition to the carved bird knob, with Japanese man with long pole trying to catch the top bird.
Above: Bamboo cane. Segmented knob handle is made of bamboo root ball. Fitted to smooth bamboo shaft.

Special mention is made to Native Americans in North America, who have a long association with canes. “When Coronado first encountered the Pueblo Indians in 1540, he found a peaceful people with a well established hierarchical government of their own. Eighty years later, in 1620, King Phillip III of Spain issued a Royal Decree commanding each Pueblo tribe to choose a governor by popular vote, without any interference of Crown or Church. This governor would be elected in the first week of the new year and would serve a single term lasting the remainder of the year. A silver headed Vara or cane was given to each governor upon his election and passed on to his successor at the end of his term of office. The Vara served as a symbol of his authority and was used in all the Indian ceremonies and festivities. The Spanish Pueblo Vara may be said to be the first canes brought to the New Continent.”7

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Peruvian Vara Cane Ca. 1800. Silver cap with a scalloped round top and partly obscured engraving. Rosewood shaft with an applied, small and engraved silver cross, silver chain and pendant with Catholic emblems, silver cross and sacred hearts and, further down, a wide silver sleeve with engravings and scalloped edges and a 4 ½” tall brass ferrule heeled with iron. The essentials of charisma and inherent individuality as well as patina and feel of age for pious items are fulfilled here and in abundance. Spanish Varas were the earliest type of cane in the Americas, and it was normally given by the king of Spain to the governors of Spanish colonies in Central and South America, with a cross as a symbol. The possession of a Vara empowers its holder to execute justice, since governors were also judges. Each Vara must be transferred to the successor authority. H. 1 ¾” x 1 ¼”, O.L. 43”.

Few collectibles offer a better suggestive history than canes/walking sticks. Their range in decoration and function are certainly testament to the ingenuity and talent of the artisans who created them. The attraction of collecting lies in the story buried within, begging discovery.

Since the dawn of mankind, sticks have been used for a variety of purposes, in a variety of cultures, their evolution mirroring our own. To the collector and/or anyone with an interest in historical objects, they offer a fascinating story. If only canes could talk, the tales they could tell!

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References:

1.   Monek, Francis H., Canes Through The Ages, P. 22.
2.   Snyder, Jeffrey, Canes and Walking Sticks-A Stroll Through Time  

and Place, P. 47.
3.   Monek, Francis H., Canes Through The Ages, P. 24.
4.  Snyder, Jeffrey, Canes and Walking Sticks – A Stroll Through Time and Place, P. 47.
5.  Monek, Francis H., Canes Through The Ages, P. 26.
6.  Nelson, Edna Du Pree, Walking Out With The Walking Stick, in the magazine Antiques, Sept., 193
7.  Dike, Catherine, Canes in the United States – Illustrated Mementos of American History 1607-1953.

For antique cane and walking stick enthusiasts