Walking Sticks

August 2010

EARLY AMERICAN LIFE...


MANY OF THE WALKING STICKS EARLY AMERICANS CARRIED WERE IMPORTED, BUT LOCAL CRAFTSMEN PRODUCED A SURPRISING NUMBER OF CANES THAT HAVE SURVIVED. DILIGENT COLLECTORS CAN STILL FIND THEM, BUT PRICES ARE RISING RAPIDLY.

No personal accessory in human history claims a more diverse heritage rhan rhe walking stick. Rising from the humblest of prehistoric beginnings as a simple staff, it became a jewel-encrusted symbol of European roya lty and papal authority. For centuries the walking stick steadied teetering peasants and adorned posing dandies. It served as a deadly weapon and an emblem of elegance.

In America, every member of the first Continental Congress likely had one, and a dying Benj amin Franklin bequeathed his own walking stick, which he obtained while serving as ambassador to France in the 17805, to his good friend George Washington. Franklin's will in 1790 stated: "My fine cra b-tree walking stick, with a gold head curiously wrought in the form of the cap of liberty, I give to my friend, and the friend of mankind, General Washington. If it were a Sceptre, he has merited it, and would become it."

Early Americans shared a fondness for walking sticks, or canes-the names are interchangeable- with their European peers, especially in fashion-conscious colonial cities north and south. Every American president from Washington through Harry Truman wore a cane, most in accord with the fashion of the day and others as ceremonial accessori es. Only Franklin Roosevelt is known to have depended on his walking stick for stability.

While gentrified r8th- and 19th·Century Americans quickly adopted the European fashion of wearing walking sticks, skilled Ametican woodcarvers also produced an array of folk-art sticks of exceptional artistic merit, and sailors resting between bouts with leviathans etched incredible scrimshaw canes of whalebone.

The sheer number of surviving American walking sticks and their endless variations make them popular with collectors, who can seekcanes that simply appeal to them or specialize in canes representing distinct periods or styles. Although little information exists about walking sticks in early America because European examples dominated the field both before and after Europeans settled here, generally walking sticks from America's early centuries carry prices ranging from $1;000 to tens of thousands of dollar s or more, .depending on workmanship, condition, and provenance.

FROM SWORD TO FASHION

The term "walking stick" is based upon function, but the origin of "cane" is less clear. The leading theory attributes the term to the 1500s, when walking sticks were first made of imported bamboo or malacca, members of the cane family.

Still further conjecture