Antique Canes and Walking Sticks
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Ivory & Scrimshaw Canes

Ivory Canes
Canes are made from a great variety of materials, from almost anything that grows including woods of all types, from the four corners of the world, and other materials such as ivory and bone. Inorganic materials such as glass, metal, and gutta percha, to name a few, are also found in great numbers. The stick maker was limited in his material choices by availability and imagination alone!

I have several ivory handled canes in my collection, distinguishing ivory from bone, antler or horn, but including the tusks and teeth of animals such as elephant, walrus and whale. I have carefully tried to identify the type of ivory from which my handles are made, with the help of my 16x loupe, but it can be both difficult and confusing. I am learning a bit more with each attempt!

In his book, Ivory, Geoffrey Wills separates ivory into several categories including elephant, fossil, hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, sperm whale, hornbill, vegetable and synthetic ivories. All in their natural state, share a white or creamy color (unless stained). I will very briefly discuss only two, elephant and walrus, as they are the most commonly seen in antique canes. For more information on ivory or scrimshaw, check your library or the internet, as there are many books and websites offering more detailed information.

Elephant ivory is distinguished by its translucent crosshatching as seen on cross-section. Cut lengthwise, these lines appear triangular or diamond-shaped. Also look for subtle translucent surface striations (I use a 16x loupe for easier viewing). It is a fine grain with an even, geometric appearance.

Walrus ivory often has a marbled or webbed pattern on finished pieces. It is easier to identify when both the outer or enamel layer, which is dense and white, and the inner, dentin layer, which has a honeycomb or tapioca-like appearance, are visible.

Although it is fairly easy to distinguish between complete teeth and tusks, pieces are much more difficult to identify, and it is suggested that careful study of the cross-section of a piece of ivory under a microscope, comparing with known samples, and finally careful study of many samples, is necessary before a level of familiarity is reached.4

I have just sent away for a copy of the Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes researched by Edgard O. Espinoza and Mary-Jacque Mann of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, who wrote this 35 page book with the goal of developing a visual, and nondestructive way for wildlife agents to distinguish ivory types. If I find this book to be useful and user friendly, I will add it to my bibliography.

Scrimshaw canes
“Scrimshaw is the name unaccountably attached to the indigenous occupational pursuit of the whale hunters, employing by-products of the fishery to pass idle hours at sea.”1 Many types of objects were produced during the Golden Age of Scrimshaw, spanning the 1830’s and 1840’s. Pictorial scrimshaw existed before this, with the earliest known know works of engraved pictorial scrimshaw dating from circa 1817-21.2 Men aboard whaling vessels utilized basic materials available to them every day, sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen and skeletal bones. This was combined with other found materials including fragments of wood, abalone and other shells, metal and tortoise shell, often used for inlay work. Whalemen created a variety of objects, including canes, during the long days and years while away at sea. Whaleman John Martin, on his way home on the Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware in 1844 writes in his journal, “There are enough canes in this ship to supply all the old men in Wilmington.” 3


Walrus ivory, enamel layer. Note the smooth surface

Same handle: Walrus ivory, inner dentin layer. Note the marbled appearance

Walrus ivory

Elephant Ivory

Elephant ivory (note crosshatching)

Warthog tusks with scrimshawed eagles at each end

1 - The Origins of Engraved Pictorial Scrimshaw, The Magazine Antiques, October, 1992, by Stuart M. Frank.
2, 3 - Overview of Scrimshaw-The Whaler’s Art.
4 - Scrimshaw – Real or Repro?, by Bill Momsen

 

 

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