Antique Canes and Walking Sticks - Antique Canes and Walking Sticks

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Cane Handles - Animal and Other Motifs

Why were particular animals and other motifs used as subjects for cane handles? Below is a collection of facts gleaned from Canes through the Ages antique cane auction catalogues, 11/98-present.

The motif of the bear came into fashion in Western Europe with the emerging Russian taste in the middle of the 19th century. In northern countries, it replaces the lion as king of beasts and represents power and warfare. Because it hibernates and wakes in the spring, the bear also symbolizes resurrection

Catheads are rarely seen on canes. Being largely nocturnal, the cat is associated with the moon; it is also credited with supernatural powers, both good and evil.

The motif of the cockatiel came into fashion with the first aviary appearing around 1860 giving the public in major European cities, for the first time, the chance to see many of the exotic birds of this world.

Dragons combine the characteristics of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water; they symbolize light and dark, the sun and moon, masculine and feminine, and the unity underlying these opposing forces. The dragon possesses the wings of a bird and the scales of a snake or fish. It breathes fire and often guards a hoard of treasure in its lair. In the East and in pre-Christian Europe, the dragon was seen as helpful and kind—indeed, the red dragon is the emblem of Wales—but Christianity, which saw the serpent as a symbol of evil, also viewed the dragon as a creature of ill-omen, representing destructiveness and inner chaos. The Chinese dragon is a symbol of the Emperor, of male energy and fertility. It is a benign animal and the fifth creature of the Chinese zodiac. It guards the East and represents sunrise, spring, and the rains. Indeed, torrential rain is known as dragon rain. There are four types of dragons in Chinese legend: Dragons of the air, the earth, the water and the spirit. Dragon dances and dragon boat races are still popular in China.

Universally viewed as the king of birds, the eagle is a symbol of the sun, royalty and the gods, especially sky gods. It represents authority, strength, victory and pride—and freedom. In 1782, The United States adopted the bald eagle as a national emblem when the Great Seal of the United States was adopted. The Great Seal shows a widespread eagle, faced front, having on his breast a shield with thirteen perpendicular red and white stripes, surmounted by a blue field with the same number of stars. In his right talon the eagle holds an olive branch, in his left a bundle of thirteen arrows, and in his beak he carries a scroll inscribed with the motto: “E Pluribus Unum.” The eagle appears in the Seals of many of our States, on most of our gold and silver coinage, and is used a great deal for decorative patriotic purposes.

Because of its bulk and strength, the elephant is generally a symbol of power. It also signifies patience, wisdom, and chastity, probably because, according to Aristotle, a bull elephant remained celibate during the two year long gestation period of his mate. The Hindu god Ganesha has an elephant’s head and, with his huge belly, represents prosperity and benevolence.

One of the most important symbols in the world myth, the fish represents fertility, life and death and is generally auspicious. It is associated with the mother goddess, the moon and the primeval waters, from which all life grew. In Greco-Roman myth a noble fish conducts souls to the world beyond, saves the shipwrecked, and symbolizes safety and speed. The fish inspired the artist of every period and is a widespread symbol of virtue.

The frog is revered as a healer and bringer of prosperity.

Monkeys played a great role in far eastern art, and are a common motif on cane handles of that origin. However, far fewer are found on European canes.

In ancient Greece, the owl was sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom and night, and came to symbolize the city named after her, as well as wisdom. Because of its association with the night, the owl is widely seen as a bird of ill omen with a cry that heralds death and misfortune. Today it is often seen as a luck-bringing mascot.

The peacock, a royal bird, with its fan-shaped tail is a symbol of the sun; its circular tail represents the vault of heaven and the eyes the stars. The male peacock courts its mate with such pride that it has become synonymous with vanity.

As a popular breed, the pug was also the insignia of the Order of the Mops. This was a society set after the Pope had outlawed Freemasonry. It gave members the social benefits without offending the Catholic Church.

The ram embodies virility and creative energy. It is associated with many gods and is a common sacrificial animal, its blood symbolically returning fertility to the soil. The Hebrew ritual horn, the Shofar, blown at the feast of Rosh Hashanah, is made from a ram’s horn.

Contrary to Western tradition, the rat is highly praised in far Easter mythology and represents intelligence, diligence, hard work and wealth.

The rooster is associated with courage and battle, with masculinity and the sun. Its crow heralds the dawn and symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. It is equated with fertility, and its sacrifice forms part of many harvest rites. In Christianity, the rooster is a symbol of resurrection, and as a weather vane, it represents vigilance. It has long been used in ritual. In some places, roosters are sacrificed so that their blood returns fertility to the soil. In the Chinese astrology, the rooster is disciplined and good at organizing others. It can be eccentric, but has a sense of humor.

Snake or serpent
The snake or serpent is probably the most widely revered of all creatures because it embodies so many forces. Its underground lair allies it with the underworld, and it is associated with the primal waters, from which all life was created. The serpent was always a great source for the artist, its symbolism is very widespread and generally represents fertility. Its associated with healing come from the snake’s shedding of its skin, making it a symbol of renewal and regeneration.

In Greek myth, Zeus took the form of a swan to seduce Leda. The most graceful and beautiful of birds is also associated with Venus/Aphrodite: Her chariot is sometimes borne through the air by swans. In Native American lore, the swan is a symbol of trust and submission. The song of the dying swan is said to be one of joy at the prospect of entering the afterlife. The omen here depends on the details of the action and color. Black swans portend business problems in the offing, white swans predict happiness in love or domestic affairs if they were floating, and business or financial success if they were flying or walking. To see swans gliding in a small pond predicts great wealth through your own diligent efforts.

Linked to the moon and water, the turtle symbolizes fertility, steady determination and long life. Various world myths speak of a tortoise supporting the world and in Hinduism, a man-tortoise was the ancestor of mankind.

Other motifs

Phrenology canes
Related to the history of medicine, Franz Joseph Gall who originated the theory of Phrenology, was born in 1758 in Tiefenbronn, Germany and died in Paris in 1828. The study of the skull protuberances as relating to the character traits and intellect was very controversial. Dr. Gall was forbidden to practice Phrenology in his native Germany, where it was banned in 1802. He continued using the method in London and Paris until his death. Others also practiced it off and on through the 19th century.

Shoe cane handle motif
Shoe styles reflect social and cultural attitudes and often tell us something about a person. Worn ones represent the eternal “worker.” Vincent Van Gogh painted worn shoes as a metaphor for the endless wanderings of the vagabond seeking, in vain, for a haven of rest.


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