The definition of the word “relic” and the meaning assigned to a “relic cane” for our purposes refers to canes that not only have specific known associations with notable people, events, or famous places, but are actually crafted from remaining parts or fragments of the associated event.
Few true relics exist older than late medieval times, although greater antiquity is often claimed for religious relics, and assuredly few are available to collectors. Most collectors are interested in relics that typically are no more than two centuries old; beyond that, the history of the object is likely to be questionable.
The Industrial Revolution which took place from the 18th to 19th centuries, was a period during which predominantly agrarian, rural societies in Europe and American became industrial and urban. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the late 1700’s, manufacturing was often done in people’s homes by using hand tools or basic machines. Industrialization marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production.
A great many commemorative objects were mass produced and sometimes sold as “relics” of historical events, but were actually produced secondhand. An exception to this was when wood from an historic building, boat, tree, etc. was used to create a series of objects, with the specific history available to connect the wood to the actual event or individual.
A relic, apart from its history and perhaps presentation case or mount, is indistinguishable from other objects of its kind, but becomes valuable because of their historical association.
The authenticity of most relics rests upon the word of someone who is supposed to have firsthand knowledge of the item and its association with the famous person, edifice, or event. Most relics with documentation are offered up by very sincere sellers, but in the end, the decision to purchase the coveted item is often based on faith more than available documentation.
Of course provenance (sometimes spelled provenience) is the most important word in relic collecting, and is the story that in most people’s experience accompanies family heirlooms. Provenance can include historical accounts or legal documents accompanying the relic, affidavits by persons acquainted firsthand with the history of the object, marks of previous ownership, or printed references. All of these are very important to ask for prior to any purchase.
One of the attractions to collecting antique canes and walking sticks is certainly tied to an aesthetic appreciation of the careful, fine craftsmanship and artistry applied to a wide variety of beautiful, and often precious, materials. However, the greater attraction for me has always been that fragile connection that exists between the object in hand and a distant, dimly perceived time; a time peopled with individuals whose daily existence was so very different from our own, yet, at the same time, laid the foundation for who we have become.
The most striking example of such a stick, the type that resonates with the most tangible connection to time removed and events overlooked, is the relic cane. A relic cane is one crafted from materials that boast an actual physical connection to the event it has been created to commemorate. A few examples of relic canes that I have seen and handled at auction, or read as described in catalogs, are canes whose shafts are reputed to have been made from timber salvaged from the U.S.S. Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) during one of its overhauls; a cane whose handle was fashioned from a small piece cut from the end of a spool that been part of the laying of the first Transatlantic cable; and, in a more macabre vein, a keepsake stick whose handle is carved from a section of the femur bone of an amputee casualty of the battle at Bull Run.
- A Collector’s Guide to Relics & Memorabilia, Jerry E. Patterson, P. xi-xiii.