Antique Canes and Walking Sticks
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Unique Scrimshaw Walking Canes

Cane Quest has asked me to write about scrimshaw or nautical walking sticks and I thought it might be interesting to tell about a cane I picked up recently. It has a whalebone shaft and a whale tooth ivory handle separated from the shaft by some baleen and wooden spacers. What makes it somewhat rare and exciting, at least to me, is that the shaft has been carved by an African, and in my opinion, by a Black whaleman. I don't know of any other whalebone canes that can be attributed to Black sailors, although if anyone is aware of one I would like to hear about it. The cane is 34 in. in length and has an elongated bulbous whale ivory knob that looks to be original to the stick. The knob has a comparable patina and size to match the color and diameter of the shaft. The shaft itself has been carved in repeating rings with African figures in each section. The tip is brass, I believe. This type of carving was done and, I assume is still done, on the south coast of Africa. I believe the carving is from the Loango area of Africa. If anyone knows this particular area, please let me know; I believe it is a particular section of the southern coastline.

There is a great scrimshaw whale tooth illustrated in Norman E. Flayderman’s book, Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders, Whales and Whalemen with similar carvings and there are several elephant tusks with the same figures walking in a carved spiral column up the length of the tusk or tooth. The cane is not carved in a spiral, but rather in separate rings. I surmise that the cane shaft and handle were carved by the same man, but it is possible that they were done separately. However the age, patina, and matching size suggests that they were carved together, probably in the mid-19th century, at the peak of the whaling period. It has been estimated that 25% or more of whale-men were Black and it is probable that if they did any scrimshaw carving, they would draw on their cultural heritage for designs. It is also possible that an African, unassociated with the whaling industry, did the carving from found whale material, but it is unlikely to me that a native would use whale tooth and whalebone to come up with a cane of this type, that is, a walking stick composed of a shaft and separate handle joined by baleen and wood spacers. More likely it seems that the cane was made in the style of the Yankee whalers to whom the Black sailor was exposed, since it resembles other sailor canes and walking sticks I have seen.

I would certainly enjoy hearing other opinions about this stick if anyone cares to comment. I don't claim to be absolutely positive about my theory, but it does seem to me to be the most likely explanation for this cane.

Angelo DeFalco
Cane and Scrimshaw Restoration
E-Mail: scrim@insight.rr.com

Unique Walking Cane

 

 

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