Smithsonian Magazine, October 1995
The object at hand is a cane — slender yet strong, gleaming black, its handle widely arched to fit a big hand. The perfect accessory for a man with gracefully silvered hair, strikingly black eyebrows and steely eyes. A man with character in his face. A man who looks as if he should be President of the United States. Such a man was Warren Gamaliel Harding, owner of the black cane. Unfortunately, it was Harding who gave us the Teapot Dome Scandal, and once blurted out, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” But no President more ideally looked the part. “If he had been wearing a toga instead of a double-breasted chesterfield,” a biographer once described Harding at his 1921 Inauguration, “he could have stepped on stage in a production of Julius Caesar.”
In Harding’s time a true gentleman couldn’t face dinner without dressing for it, nor step outside without a cane to add what the Smithsonian’s David Shayt calls an “exclamation point” to his attire. Shayt specializes in everyday objects, including canes, at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). He admires Harding’s black cane and notes that Presidents always used to carry canes, and they still get them as gifts. Since the early days of the Republic, ceremonial canes have been presented to newly elected Presidents. Some of these Presidential canes are now on display at the museum’s “Ceremonial Court” exhibit.
Old Hickory himself, President Andrew Jackson — wouldn’t you know it — owned a sword cane (perhaps made of hickory), though it was probably another stick that he used to destroy the arrow-straight line originally planned for Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. The story goes that when asked where the Treasury Building should go, Jackson banged his stick testily on the ground and said, “Build it here!” He was right in the middle of the avenue and they took him literally.
The Smithsonian now has a cane that Ben Franklin bequeathed to George Washington, a splendid stick with a gold-headed handle in the shape of a French liberty cap. A more decorative gold knob adorns another historic cane that the Smithsonian does not have. With it, in 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of proslavery South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of abolitionist Massachusetts almost to death. Sumner took years to recover from the beating; Brooks was expelled from the House and then re-elected. The cane is in Boston, and you can see the dents on its handle.
Walking sticks have been with us since Homo sapiens first hacked off a straight branch, to discourage attack or bop a rival on the head. Those distant ancestors doubtless found sticks helpful as well for pointing out a direction, tracing a diagram in the dirt or prying up a slab of useful flint.
Ever since, though walking sticks have faded in and out of fashion, they have always been put to pretty much the same uses by humankind. The halt and lame still walk with their help. The young and hale still probe their way across mountain streams with hiking staffs, though nobody takes whacks at folk crossing in the other direction, as Robin Hood and Little John once did.
Fashionable people of the early 1920s used to tuck a cane under an arm, wave it cheerily at friends and often whirl it in circles as they strode city sidewalks. The older and less-cheery found canes well suited for angry flourishing. Bostonian lore cherishes the way in which Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s redoubtable president, used to cross busy Beacon Street during rush hour. He’d simply step off the curb and bring the carriage traffic to a clattering, cursing halt with an imperious wave of his cane.
“Can’t you picture a very grande dame shaking this one at a rude driver of a hansom cab?” asks David Shayt, fingering a delicate, formal cane with a silver handle, a part of the Smithsonian collection. The Institution has more than 2,000 canes but displays only a dozen or so at any one time. Besides those at NMAH, canes are now on exhibit at the National Museum of American Art and the National Museum of African Art.
African canes tend to bear highly symbolic carvings; they have been traditional badges of power since the ancient dynasties of Egypt. Archaeologists found 130 canes buried with King Tutankhamun, and African canes still sometimes denote the position, purpose, religion and everyday life of their carriers. Early African-American folk artists tended to carve cane handles into heads or faces. Asian canes are often made from bamboo with ivory, mother-of-pearl or mahogany handles, carved to represent monkeys, elephants, birds and lizards.