Prologue: On Carrying a Cane – by Robert Cortes Holliday

Robert Cortes Holliday, born July 18, 1880, died January 1, 1947, was an American writer and literary editor.  Below is an excerpt from his book Walking-Stick Papers, New York, George H. Doran Company, 1918 (written in part from various periodicals).

Some people, without doubt, are born with a deep instinct for carrying a cane; some consciously acquire the habit of carrying a cane; and some find themselves in a position where the matter of carrying a cane is thrust upon them.

Canes are carried in all parts of the world, and have been carried–or that which was the forefather of them has been carried–since human history began. Indeed, a very fair account of mankind might be made by writing the story, of its canes. And nothing that would readily occur to mind would more eloquently express a civilisation than its evident attitude toward canes. Perhaps nothing can more subtly convey the psychology of a man than his feeling about a cane.

The prehistoric ape, we are justified in assuming, struggled upright upon a cane. The cane, so to speak, with which primitive man wooed his bride, defended his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and brought down his food, was (like all canes which are in good taste) admirably chosen for the occasion. The spear, the stave, the pilgrim’s staff, the sword, the sceptre–always has the cane-carrying animal borne something in his hand. And, down the long vista of the past, the cane, in its various manifestations, has ever been the mark of strength, and so of dignity. Thus as a man originally became a gentleman, or a king, by force of valour, the cane in its evolution has ever been the symbol of a superior caste.

A man cannot do manual labour carrying a cane. And it would be a moral impossibility for one of servile state–a butler, for instance, or a ticket-chopper–to present himself in the role of his occupation ornamented with a cane. One held in custody would not be permitted to appear before a magistrate flaunting a cane. Until the stigma which attaches to his position may be erased he would be shorn of this mark of nobility, the cane.

Canes are now carried mostly by the very youthful and the very aged, the powerful, the distinguished, the patrician, the self-important, and those who fancy to exalt themselves. Some, to whom this privilege is denied during the week by their fear of adverse public opinion, carry canes only on Sundays and holidays. By this it is shown that on these days they are their own masters.

Custom as to carrying canes varies widely in different parts of the world; but it may be taken as a general maxim that the farther west you go the less you see of canes. The instinct for carrying a cane is more natural in old civilisations, where the tradition is of ancient growth, than in newer ones, where frequently a cane is regarded as the sign of an effete character. As we have been saying, canes, we all feel, have an affinity with the idea of an aristocracy. If you do not admit that the idea of an aristocracy is a good one, then doubtless you are down on canes. It is interesting to observe that canes have flourished at all especially chivalrous periods and in all especially chivalrous communities. No illustrator would portray a young planter of the Old South without his cane; and that fragrant old-school figure, a southern “Colonel,” without his cane is inconceivable. Canes connote more or less leisure. They convey a subtle insinuation of some degree of culture.

They always are a familiar article of a gentleman’s dress in warm climates. The cane, quite strictly speaking, in fact has its origin in warm countries. For properly speaking, the word cane should be restricted in its application to a peculiar class of palms, known as ratans, included under the closely allied genera Calamus and Daemonorops, of which there are a large number of species. These plants, the Encyclopedia tells us, are found widely extended throughout the islands of the Indian Archipelago, the Malay Peninsula, China, India and Ceylon; and examples have also been found in Australia and Africa. The learned Rumphius describes them, under the name ofPalmijunci, as inhabitants of dense forests into which the rays of the sun scarce can penetrate, where they form spiny bushes, obstructing the passage through the jungle. They rise to the top of the tallest trees and fall again so as to resemble a great length of cable, adorned, however, with the most beautiful leaves, pinnated or terminating in graceful tendrils. The plants creep or trail along to an enormous length, sometimes, it is said, reaching five hundred feet. Two examples of Calamus verus, measuring respectively two hundred and seventy feet and two hundred and thirty feet, were exhibited in the Paris exhibition of 1855.

The well-known Malacca canes are obtained from Calamus Scipionum, the stems of which are much stouter than is the case with the average species ofCalamus. Doubtless to the vulgar a Malacca cane is merely a Malacca cane. There are, however, in this interesting world choice spirits who make a cult of Malacca canes, just as some dog fanciers are devotees of the Airedale terrier. Such as these know that inferior Malacca canes are, as the term in the cane trade is, “shaved”; that is, not being of the circumference most coveted, but too thick, they have been whittled down in bulk. A prime Malacca cane is, of course, a natural stem, and it is a nice point to have a slight irregularity in its symmetry as evidence of this. The delicious spotting of a Malacca cane is due to the action of the sun upon it in drying. As the stems are dried in sheaves, those most richly splotched are the ones that have been at the outside of the bundle. What new strength to meet life’s troubles, what electric expansion of soul, come to the initiated upon the feel of the vertebra of his Malacca cane!

The name of cane is also applied to many plants besides the Calamus, which are possessed of long, slender, reed-like stalks or stems, as, for instance, the sugar-cane, or the reed-cane. From the use as walking-sticks to which many of these plants have been applied, the name cane has been given generally to “sticks” irrespective of the source from which they are derived.

Our distinguished grandfathers carried canes, frequently handsome gold-headed ones, especially if they were ministers. Bishops, or “Presiding Elders;” when, in those mellow times, it was the custom for a congregation to present its minister with a gold-headed cane duly inscribed. Our fathers of some consequence carried canes of a gentlemanly pattern, often ones with ivory handles. Though in the days when those of us now sometime grown were small one had to have arrived at the dignity of at least middle-age before it was seemly for one to carry a cane. In England, however, and particularly at Eton, it has long been a common practice for small aristocrats to affect canes.

The dandies, fops, exquisites, and beaux of picturesque and courtly ages were, of course, very partial to canes, and sometimes wore them attached to the wrist by a thong. It has been the custom of the Surgeon of the King of England to carry a “Gold Headed Cane.” This cane has been handed down to the various incumbents of this office since the days of Dr. John Radcliffe, who was the first holder of the cane. It has been used for two hundred years or more by the greatest physicians and surgeons in the world, who succeeded to it. “The Gold Headed Cane” was adorned by a cross-bar at the top instead of a knob. The fact is explained by Munk, in that Radcliffe, the first owner, was a rule unto himself and possibly preferred this device as a mark of distinction beyond the knob used by physicians in general. Men of genius now and then have found in their choice of a cane an opportunity for the play of their eccentricity, such a celebrated cane being the tall wand of Whistler. Among the relics of great men preserved in museums for the inspiration of the people canes generally are to be found. We have all looked upon the cane of George Washington at Mount Vernon and the walking-stick of Carlyle in Cheyne Walk. And is each not eloquent of the man who cherished it?

Freak canes are displayed here and there by persons of a pleasantly bizarre turn of mind: canes encased in the hide of an elephant’s tail, canes that have been intricately carven by some Robinson Crusoe, or canes of various other such species of curiosity. There is a veteran New York journalist who will be glad to show any student of canes one which he prizes highly that was made from the limb of a tree upon which a friend of his was hanged. In our age of handy inventions a type of cane is manufactured in combination with an umbrella.

Canes are among the useful properties of the theatre. He would be a decidedly incomplete villain who did not carry a cane. Imaginative literature is rich in canes. Who ever heard of a fairy godmother without a cane? Who with any feeling for terror has not been startled by the tap, tap of the cane of old Pew in “Treasure Island”? There is an awe and a pathos in canes, too, for they are the light to blind men. And the romance of canes is further illustrated in this: they, with rags and the wallet, have been among the traditional accoutrements of beggars, the insignia of the “dignity springing from the very depth of desolation; as, to be naked is to be so much nearer to the being a man, than to go in livery.” J. M. Barrie was so fond of an anecdote of a cane that he employed it several times in his earlier fiction. This was the story of a young man who had a cane with a loose knob, which in society he would slyly shake so that it tumbled off, when he would exclaim: “Yes, that cane is like myself; it always loses its head in the presence of ladies.”
Canes have figured prominently in humour. The Irishman’s shillelagh was for years a conspicuous feature of the comic press. And there will instantly come to every one’s mind that immortal passage in “Tristram Shandy.” Trim is discoursing upon life and death:
“Are we not here now, continued the Corporal (striking the end of his stick perpendicularly upon the floor, so as to give an idea of health and stability)–and are we not (dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!–‘Twas infinitely striking! Susannah burst into a flood of tears.”

Canes are not absent from poetry. Into your ears already has come the refrain of “The Last Leaf”:

“And totters o’er the ground,
With his cane.”

And, doubtless, floods of instances of canes that the world will not willingly let die will occur to one upon a moment’s reflection.

Canes are inseparable from art. All artists carry them; and the poorer the artist the more attached is he to his cane. Canes are indispensable to the simple vanity of the Bohemian. One of the most memorable drawings of Steinlen depicts the quaint soul of a child of the Latin Quarter: an elderly Bohemian, very much frayed, advances wreathed in the sunshine of his boutonniere and cane. Canes are invariably an accompaniment of learning. Sylvester Bonnard would of course not be without his cane; nor would any other true book-worm, as may be seen any day in the reading-room of the British Museum and of the New York Public Library. It is, indeed, indisputable that canes, more than any other article of dress, are peculiarly related to the mind. There is an old book-seller on Fourth Avenue whose clothes when he dies, like the boots of Michelangelo, probably will require to be pried loose from him, so incessantly has he worn them within the memory of man. None has ever looked upon him in the open air without his cane. And is not that emblem of omniscience and authority, the schoolmaster’s ferule, directly of the cane family? So large has the cane loomed in the matter of chastisement that the word cane has become a verb, to cane.

There was (in the days before the war) a military man (friend of mine), a military man of the old school, in whom could be seen, shining like a flame, a man’s great love of a cane. He had lived a portion of his life in South America, and he used to promenade every pleasant afternoon up and down the Avenue swinging a sharply pointed, steel-ferruled swagger-stick. “What’s the use of carrying that ridiculous thing around town?” some one said to him one day.

“That!” he rumbled in reply (he was one of the roarers among men), “why, that’s to stab scorpions with.”

They’ve buried him, I heard, in Flanders; on his breast (I hope), his cane.

“When a Red Cross platoon,” says a news despatch of the other day, “was advancing to the aid of scores of wounded men. Surgeon William J. McCracken of the British Medical Corps ordered all to take cover, and himself advanced through the enemy’s fire, bearing a Red Cross flag on his walking-stick.”

Indeed, the Great War is one of the most thrilling, momentous and colourful chapters in the history of canes. “The officers picked up their canes,” says the newspaper, and so forth, and so forth. Captain A. Radclyffe Dugmore, in a spirited drawing of the Battle of the Somme, shows an officer leading a charge waving a light cane. As an emblem of rank the cane among our Allies has apparently supplanted the sword. Something of the dapper, cocky look of our brothers in arms on our streets undoubtedly is due to their canes. One never sees a British, French or Italian officer in the rotogravure sections without his cane. We should be as startled to see General Haig or the Prince of Wales without a cane as without a leg. With our own soldiers the cane does not seem to be so much the thing, at least over here. I have a friend, however, who went away a private with a rifle over his shoulder. The other day came news from him that he had become a sergeant, and, perhaps as proof of this, a photograph of himself wearing a tin hat and with a cane in his hand. It is also to be observed now and then that a lady in uniformed service appears to regard it as an added military touch to swing a cane.

Women as well as men play their part in the colourful story of the cane. The shepherdess’s crook might be regarded as the precursor of canes for ladies. In Merrie England in the age when the May-pole flourished it was fashionable, we know from pictures, for comely misses and grandes dames to sport tall canes mounted with silver or gold and knotted with a bow of ribbon. The dowager duchess of romantic story has always appeared leaning upon her cane. Do not we so see the rich aunt of Hawden Crawley? And Mr. Walpole’s Duchess of Wrexe, certainly, was supported in her domination of the old order of things by a cane. The historic old croons of our own early days smoked a clay or a corn-cob pipe and went bent upon a cane.

In England to-day it is swagger for women to carry sticks–in the country. And here the thoughtful spectator of the human scene notes a nice point. It is not etiquette, according to English manners, for a woman to carry a cane in town. Some American ladies who admire and would emulate English customs have not been made acquainted with this delicate nuance of taste, and so are very unfashionable when they would be ultra-fashionable.
Anybody returning from the Alps should bring back an Alpine stock with him; every one who has visited Ireland upon his return has presented some close friend with a blackthorn stick; nobody has made a walking tour of England without an ash stick. In London all adult males above the rank of costers carry “sticks”; in New York sticks are customary with many who would be ashamed to assume them did they live in the Middle West, where the infrequent sticks to be seen upon the city streets are in many cases the sign of transient mummers. And yet it is a curious fact that in communities where the stick is conspicuously absent from the streets it is commonly displayed in show-windows, in company with cheap suits and decidedly loud gloves. Another odd circumstance is this: trashy little canes hawked by sidewalk venders generally appear with the advent of toy balloons for sale on days of big parades.

In Jamaica, Long Island, the visitor would probably see canes in the hands only of prosperous coloured gentlemen. And than this fact probably nothing throws more light on the winning nature of the coloured race, and on the character and function of canes. In San Francisco–but the adequate story, the Sartor Resartus–the World as Canes, remains to be written.

This, of course, is the merest essay into this vast and significant subject.

Reference:

1.    http://www.readbookonline.net/

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