Antique Canes and Walking Sticks - Antique Canes and Walking Sticks

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History of Antique Canes

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. Suffice it to say that 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. Indeed, the stick has served many purposes throughout history, in fact evolving right alongside us.

What’s in a name? 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. The most commonly recognized explanation is, in the Western world after the sixteenth 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 archeologist 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. 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.

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!).

In Europe during the tenth 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 seventeenth 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 fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England’s and France’s kings and noblemen are depicted in prints and paintings wearing elaborate canes. It appears that the walking stick became a widely accepted accessory of elegance and social prominence during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “Canes and staffs are so often part of the portraits of the period that they are named “cane-staff pictures.”5 It was said that the 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 (No doubt the reason for this was because of the potential for a weapon to be hidden inside.) Less affluent subjects also carried sticks of greater lengths, perhaps as high as the head, as many traveled long distances without benefit of other means of transportation. These staffs helped negotiate rutted, unpaved roads, to leap ditches and gullies as well as fend off attacks from animals and other people.

In many portraits of the seventeenth century, the subject is shown with a walking stick, carried in addition to the customary sword. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the carrying of a sword was largely replaced by the walking stick.

Seventeenth century Americans at first including groups of settlers with backgrounds of wealth and refinement who possessed fashionable wardrobes and accessories and brought these with them to the New World. However the Puritans passed laws prohibiting the wearing of silver, gold and other “luxuries” consistent with “immodest and extravagant fashion displays.” Homemade dress was the rule, and the average American citizen carried a stout walking stick as most traveled on foot. Sticks were also seen decorated with eagles during this time.

In seventeenth and eighteenth century England and on the continent, canes continued to be a requisite 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 were kept very busy during this time. 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 eighteenth century, less elaborate canes were becoming the norm.

Demand for sticks continued to rise in the nineteenth 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 tremendous demand for canes, technological development and advancement in tools and machinery, vast increases in production capabilities and reduced production costs, an industry was born. From the mid-nineteenth 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 nineteenth century came to a close, so too did the wearing of canes, and by the mid-twentieth century, canes were used primarily by hikers and climbers, or as an orthopedic aid.

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.

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 Other sticks include planting sticks with sharp tips for sowing seeds, usually carved with the likeness of a "corn maiden." The shaman's staff, frequently carved with a totem, was a symbol of magical power. By waving it at some malcontent, the shaman might visit on him something less than good fortune. There were prayer sticks, medicine sticks, story sticks (with carvings that told a history) and "talking" sticks (passed around at council meetings), an important conversational device as only the person holding the stick could talk. With a coup stick, a warrior would touch an enemy before killing him, after which he would carve a notch on the shaft. A “booger bones” stick, its carving as odd as its name, was used to scare off intruders.

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!

1 Canes Through The Ages, Monek, Francis H., P. 20, originating from an essay on canes written by J.H. Ingram,1838.
2 Canes and Walking Sticks – A Stroll Through Time and Place, Snyder, Jeffrey B., P. 47.
3 Canes Through The Ages, Monek, Francis H., P. 24.
4 Canes and Walking Sticks – A Stroll Through Time and Place, Snyder, Jeffrey B., P. 47.
5 Canes Through The Ages, Monek, Francis H., P. 26.
6 Walking Out With The Walking Stick, Nelson, Edna Du Pree, in the magazine Antiques, Sept., 193
7 Canes in the United States – Illustrated Mementoes of American History 1607-1953, Dike, Catherine.
8 The Object at Hand, Park, Edwards.


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