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Collecting Antique Walking Sticks and Canes
In centuries past, well-heeled gentlemen, and ladies too, were seldom seen without a walking stick in hand. Unlike today, canes of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, often boasting handles of precious metals and jewels, served as symbols of wealth, power and social stature. They were much more a fashion accessory than walking aide.
Of course, the dictates of society have changed drastically since then and the fashionable engagements that filled the days of the well-to-do are far less stringent. Today, canes are more utilitarian in nature and are used primarily as an aid for getting around.
They generally lack the attention to aesthetic beauty that once dominated their manufacture. Yet despite their decline on the fashion scene, the walking stick is enjoying an extraordinary resurgence in popularity among collectors who have become fascinated with the history, workmanship and hidden treasures found in them.
While it is impossible to expound on all of the fascinations of antique canes and cane collecting in such a limited space, the following is a brief overview of walking sticks along with a few hints on building a collection and a list of helpful reference materials.
From Prehistoric Man to the Thrones of Europe
The first canes were probably little more than tree branches used for support when prehistoric man took his first upright steps. Since then the use, symbolism and form of the walking stick has evolved quite dramatically. Ornate staffs carved with mythical characters and symbols would have belonged to prehistoric chieftains as would those made of mammoth tusks and stag horns. First written mention, if somewhat circumstantial, can be found in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis where the story of Cain and Abel unfolds. Cain used a stick to kill his brother Abel, and some enthusiasts have ventured to suggest that the word "cane" was thusly derived. I will leave that argument to the historians.
Even farther back in time, numerous references to the cane can be found among ancient Egyptian artifacts. Walking sticks, it seems, were very popular among the ancient Egyptians with each profession such as merchant, shepherd or priest possessing a cane of differing form and function. Even the Pharaoh would have carried a special staff of some kind. The cane's importance to the Egyptians extended from life even into death as exemplified by the legendary King Tut. More than 100 staffs, or walking sticks, were found in his tomb undoubtedly to assist and protect him in the afterlife.
Indeed, the cane has always been used as a form of protection whether by design or circumstance. Travelers of the Middle Ages would seldom take to the unfriendly roads without the protection of their walking stick. These rudimentary aides were indispensable as weapons, tools, supports and even as smuggling devices for money and other precious cargoes.
The cane's role as a token of social stature took hold during the 16th and 17th centuries when kings and aristocrats introduced them into society duly encrusted with jewels and precious metals. So fervent was the demand by stature-hungry nobility for extravagant walking sticks that artisans were compelled to stretch the level of their creativity to new heights. Portraits of kings and aristocrats of Europe often include extraordinary walking sticks of gold and silver outlandishly encrusted with jewels of every hue and size.
By the 19th and early 20th century, the importance of the walking stick as a status symbol had extended down to the middle and, in some cases, the lower classes and its role as a fashion accessory was firmly in place. The industrial revolution that swept through Europe in the mid 19th century added further fuel to the cane's enormous popularity by making production faster and much less expensive. It was during this period that the system cane or gadget cane, canes that served a dual or hidden purposes, flourished. More than 1500 patents for these wonderful canes were applied for ranging from sword canes, to physician's canes, to fishing pole canes and even to canes that converted into bicycles.
While most decorative canes were manufactured in England and France, Carl Fabergé of Russia and Tiffany Studios in America produced some of the most magnificent and expensive canes in the world. Today, these canes are the most highly prized pieces in any collection.
Few things offer a better telltale of history than collectible walking sticks. Their range in decoration and function are certainly testaments to the ingenuity and talent of the artisans who created them, but they are also windows into the lives of our ancestors who possessed them. The magic of owning a walking stick lies in the story buried within it. Beneath the surface of many sticks one can find an extraordinarily accurate commentary not only of the people, but also the major social, economic and political issues of the times.
For example, many ladies of the 18th and 19th centuries carried a "vinaigrette" cane to protect them from a variety of ailments. Throughout history, vinegar has been heralded for its medicinal qualities. A sponge soaked in the healing liquid was placed in a small container with holes in it on the handle of the cane. Should a lady's tight corset cause her to faint or should she encounter someone with a dreaded illness, her vinaigrette tucked into her cane was close at hand to protect her. In a similar fashion, many ladies soaked a sponge in perfume to relieve them from the unpleasant odors encountered in unsanitary public places.
In France, during the civil unrest of the 19th century, canes were often prohibited in public places or during public gatherings as they often concealed deadly weapons such as swords, spikes and guns. French insurgents used canes with hidden razors to discretely sabotage police horses in crowded gatherings by slashing their ankles. When the police looked for the dastardly perpetrator, the weapon was already retracted, hidden in its innocent looking cane shaft and the insurgent was well on his way from the scene... completely undetected.
Canes were also used during politically tumultuous times to demonstrate allegiance. One such cane had what appeared to be an ivory knob handle with ordinary rings carved into it. However, when a light was shined upon it, it cast a shadow of Napoleon's profile, identifying the carrier as a supporter of the overthrown emperor. Canes also identified members of organizations such as the Freemasons who carried three-sided canes representing their society's symbol.
Such anecdotes number in the thousands and for the collector they are the driving force behind collecting walking sticks. Add to that the incredible beauty, workmanship and rarity of many walking sticks and collectors find themselves unable to resist this engaging pastime.
Categorizing Your Walking Sticks
There are basically three types of walking sticks: decorative, folk art and system. While the distinctions can be fuzzy for many sticks, they provide a good foundation for categorizing the thousands of canes that have been produced over the past several hundred years.
Decorative canes, as the name implies, were the cane as fashion accessory in its purest form. Unlike their system cane counterparts, their function was for the most part aesthetic. The variety of materials and forms of these decorative canes was limited only by the imagination of highly trained artisans and craftsmen. Ivory, gold, silver, porcelain, jewels, enamel and even glass were just a few of the materials employed in creating formal, decorative walking sticks.
Folk art canes, unlike their more formal counterparts, by definition were made by single, often untrained artisans. There purpose was to cast attention on the creator not the carrier; they were an expression of the artists skill and personality and can be distinguished from formal canes in various ways. The folk art cane is most often crafted completely of wood and is often highly carved from its handle to the bottom of its shaft. There is seldom a ferrule on folk art canes. And, while folk art canes are often less formal in appearance, they are nonetheless some of the most beautiful canes ever produced are are highly regarded among collectors.
System canes, or gadget canes as they are also known, are perhaps the most fascinating and highly collected type of walking sticks. This category of canes consists of those with a dual or hidden purpose, such as a sword, a whiskey flask and glass, or a walking stick carried by physicians containing scalpels and syringes. More than 1500 patents for gadget canes were applied for during the 18th and 19th centuries and were used in much the same way as we use a purse or wallet today.
Because gadget walking canes were more utilitarian in nature and usually not as beautifully embellished as decorative canes, they were often relegated to the dusty corners of attics and basements after they fell from fashion in the 1920s. Worse yet, many were given to children as playthings. They are therefore very difficult to find complete with all of their various pieces making them some of the most desirable and popular, albeit sometimes the hardest to find, type of cane.
The decorative canes available to collectors today are those hailing primarily from the second half of the 19th century and into the 1920s. Most decorative canes have a plain shaft with a decorative handle crafted from a variety of materials.
Silver handles were widely produced during this time period and are easily obtained making them a good starting point for a decorative cane collection. Be careful, however; many handles that may have the appearance of sterling silver are not and they should be priced accordingly, unless the stick has other historical importance, provenance or rarity. Finely chased sterling and gold knob handles were often inscribed and used as presentation sticks while even fancier sterling knobs might take the form of animals, human figures or elaborate crook handles. The Art Nouveau period produced some extraordinary sterling-handled canes which are highly prized by collectors.
Ivory was a favorite medium for cane artisans who carved fabulous handles of every shape and form for a seemingly insatiable market. Because of its rarity, however, ivory sticks were generally only attainable by the wealthiest members of society. Among the rarest and most expensive examples are those canes carved completely of ivory. More than any other material, ivory handles offer the greatest variety of subjects to be found on cane handles. Practically every type of animal, from dogs to elephants, has been represented as well as every example of flower or mythical character and beast. Faces and human forms also had their place on the carved ivory cane handle. They continue to be enormously popular among collectors, especially examples that are embellished with glass eyes or jewels and which are free from heavy discoloration or cracks. Dry, hot weather and direct sunlight can cause ivory to crack, so great care should be taken to control the humidity and sun exposure in areas where these canes are displayed.
Because of their high cost, canes with gold handles are among the rarest and most dear to collectors. Look for highly chased crook handles with the gold content marked. Many canes carved from less expensive materials will have an ornate gold collar as an accent. Most gold handled canes were made for evening use and will usually have an ebony or equally elegant shaft.
Porcelain handles produced by renowned makers such as Meissen and Sèvres are highly collectible due to their extraordinary beauty and rarity. Because they are so fragile, most porcelain handles were damaged over the years and are difficult to find in mint condition.
Other materials used to craft handles and shafts for decorative canes included tortoise shell, bone, antler, brass, bronze, wood, snakeskin, leather, sharkskin, and even glass. As with most decorative antiques, care should be taken to acquire canes that are free of cracks, chips or repairs. Use your judgement however. Rarity, exceptional beauty or important provenance should at times override minor flaws.
Perhaps the most important canes on the market today are those that were produced by elite houses such as Fabergé and Tiffany. These canes, often encrusted with diamonds and jewels, can command prices well over $15,000 and are most certainly considered the prize of any collection. The shop of Fabergé was known for its intricate enamel and diamond handles while Tiffany produced elegant gold handles with shining ebony or handsome tortoise shell shafts. Examples are few and prices continue to soar as collectors scoop these masterpieces off of the market.
Due to the variety of decorative canes, the collector can build upon a number of variations. Prices will depend not only on the materials used, but also on the degree of decoration, the quality of the workmanship and the rarity of a particular theme. Canes that combine various materials, such as porcelain and gold, or ivory and sterling can also command premium prices. Erotic canes, depicting nude forms, carved from ivory or cast in sterling often bring a small premium over canes of similar materials. Even sticks whose decorative material may be somewhat less than appealing can bring high prices based on its rarity. One such stick is the bull's penis cane which, aptly named, is covered from top to bottom with the phallic skin of one very unlucky bull. Fortunately, the material's origin is not readily apparent unless an explanation is offered.
The System Cane
System canes are the most highly collected types of canes and there are literally thousands of types from which to choose. As stated earlier, a system cane is one that has a dual purpose or hidden meaning or function. These canes were used in much the same way as we use a wallet or a purse today and wealthy gentlemen or ladies would have owned several canes to be used for different outings and purposes.
Gadget canes fall into four broad categories based on their function, many of which were quite ingenious. Professional canes were used by a host of tradesmen and professionals to carry various tools and accessories. City canes, used most often by fashionable ladies and gentleman, often housed such necessities as cigars, snuff boxes, perfume atomizers and bottles, watches, opera glasses, pipes, and even hidden cameras. Musical canes such as flutes and violins also fall into this category. Outdoor canes held the items needed for outdoor activities including fishing, birdwatching, and lawn games. Weapon canes, as the name implies, concealed swords, daggers, spikes, flails, bludgeons and even guns. Some particularly sinister sticks were those outfitted with retractable razor blades and spikes along the ornate wood shaft. It would be virtually impossible to expound on every type of system cane created in such a short space. Be assured, there is a cane for virtually every whim and fancy and collectors often have a hard time trying to choose a direction for their collection. Following are a few examples of some of the more popular and important gadget canes created during the 18th and 19th centuries. They are listed by category.
The most important rule of thumb when collecting system canes is to acquire only those canes whose contents are complete. They are, of course, a little more expensive, but in the end they will render a much more valuable collection.
Of the professional canes, none seems to enjoy more popularity than the doctor's cane. The caduceus, two snakes entwined around a central staff, has long been the symbol of the medical profession, and the cane was a natural manifestation of that symbol. Eighteenth- and 19th-century physicians were seldom without their walking sticks and such a close association was formed that patients derived a sense of reassurance at the sight of their physician's powerful walking stick. These handsome canes often served as a medicine bag for busy physicians with many containing surgical instruments, syringes, medicines, bleeders and vinaigrettes. It is interesting to note that a doctor might make several house calls without ever changing or cleaning the instruments handily tucked into the shaft of his cane. Canes containing small flasks for holding liquor were also popular with physicians who might take a few swigs on his rounds to protect himself from cholera or other deadly epidemics. The mortician's cane is one of the more unusual canes I have come across, and though its design is quite simple, the cane is extraordinarily rare. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when epidemics spread like wildfire, a town's mortician was often very busy, and one might assume, very wealthy. The mortician's cane consists of a brass rod notched with measurement indicators that slide from the shaft of the cane allowing fast and easy measurement of the deceased in preparation for his final resting place. Dog racers used a similar device outfitted with a leather strap for measuring their racers. Many incorporated a whistle in the handle too!
Tailors and seamstresses often carried sticks housing tools of their trade including measuring tapes that could be pulled from the handle, needles, thread, ivory or sterling thimbles, pin cushions and even vials of beads for fancy decoration.
Sailors and ship captains had a variety of canes from which to choose including those with powerful telescopes hidden inside. Lower ranking sailors might have carried canes with small knives or eating utensils as well.
One of the most interesting professional canes I have acquired is the painter's cane constructed of a rather plain bamboo shaft with an ivory knob. One would never suspect that it held all of the tools of the artist's trade including paints, brushes, rags, water canisters and pencils. The shaft of the cane even converts into a portable easel!
Some of the most beautiful of the system canes are those used for more social or fashionable purposes. City canes included those outfitted with mother-of-pearl opera glasses, handsome pocket watches, or a handy umbrella which held obvious appeal on rainy days.
One of the finest and perhaps most salacious of the city sticks is the "whore house" coin cane handsomely decorated with a leather and brass crook handle. A gentleman could exercise the ultimate in discretion as he dispensed from his fine cane the exact amount of money needed to purchase the services of a prostitute.
Musical canes also fall into this category and are among the most rare and highly sought after among collectors. The violin cane, in particular, complete with a bow hidden inside the shaft, has fetched prices as high as $25,000 and is in demand among serious collectors. Flute canes and other wind instruments are also popular and in many cases, much more accessible than their stringed counterparts.
System canes were also fashionable among society women who often carried fans, embroidery needles and thread, powder boxes, parasols, atomizers and perfume bottles hidden in the shafts or handles of their delicately appointed canes. Ladies' system canes were often more decorative adn can be found with carved ivory, gold, sterling, enamel and porcelain handles.
Outdoor canes also offer collectors a wealth of excellent choices. Their complexity ranges from the single mechanism seat cane to the picnic cane complete with knives, forks, corkscrews, salt and pepper shakers, and even chopsticks! Other outdoor canes held compasses, fishing poles, doge leashes and maps.
Of all the outdoor canes, however, the tippling cane continues to be very popular among collectors. Also known as a whiskey flask cane, these handy types of sticks were made famous by the renowned painter Toulouse Lautrec whose penchant for drink led him to the desperate measuring of hiding illegal absinthe in a flask ingeniously fitted into the shaft of his cane. The most common model has compartments for a glass flask and a small stem glass. These canes enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during Prohibition in the United States.
Weapons canes present the more sinister side of the system cane and often carry the highest price tags. They are among the most complex of canes as they were skillfully crafted to conceal a host of deadly weapons.
Seemingly innocuous and plain in demeanor with little embellishment, these canes could, at the flick of the wrist, become a lethal weapon. So deceptive were these weapon canes, the French government declared it illegal to carry a cane into a public gathering for fear that any one of them might conceal harmful weapons, including guns.
These fears were apparently well founded. Three of the most diabolical canes known to exist were used by insurgents during 19th- century street riots in France. One such cane patented in 1883 and aptly named "La Terrible" contained three sets of double razor blades that emerged from its painted metal shaft ripping the hands of anyone trying to grab it. This cane along with two similarly outfitted canes, "La Diabolique," and "La Redoutable" were so sinister they were outlawed in France shortly after they went into production. Today, very few collectors have had the good fortune of acquiring a set of these rare canes.
As a rule, most gentleman of the 19th century owned a wide variety of
canes. That collection would most assuredly have included at least one sword, dagger or stiletto cane. Sword canes are, as the name suggests, long blades hidden in the shaft of a cane. The primary value of these sticks more than likely is derived from the blade as opposed to the cane itself. High quality blades by Toledo in Spain or Wilkinson from England carry a premium over other blades of less renowned manufacture, and likewise, Toledo blades with special etching or spring-action handles will bring a higher price than plainer models.
In all of my years acquiring and selling canes, two sword canes stand out. Keep in mind that during the 19th century a man's honor was sacrosanct and the least verbal infraction against that honor was taken as an affront worthy of a duel to the death. The wise man was always prepared, and for the carrier of the "dueling cane," doubly so. This clever cane was equipped with not one, but two swords, in the event that one's opponent was without a weapon! The second sword cane, also intended for duels, bore the French inscription "Never take me out with reason...Never put me back without honor."
Dagger canes are, in a sense, swords with shorter blades. Many daggers were specially designed to inflict the maximum amount of injury and many can be found with intricate embellishment. Stiletto canes were probably the most ingenious of the weapon canes as they were completely hidden with no visible break in the cane. A quick flip of the wrist could eject a sharp blade from either the handle or ferrule of the cane.
One adaptation of the stiletto was a cane whose shaft would retract as the blade was plunged into the body unbeknownst to any onlookers.
Gun canes were designed as concealed weapons which might explain their unrefined appearance. Used for self defense and by poachers, an ornate and flashy cane might have drawn unwanted attention to the carrier. Gun canes can be found with a variety of firing mechanisms including the flintlock and breech loaders. While most firearm sticks are highly desirable, those manufactured by well-known manufacturers like Derringer and Remington often carry a premium price.
The Anatomy of a Cane
Like any area of collecting there are certain related terms that bear explanation when discussing the anatomy of a cane. The first is the handle by which the cane is held and can be found in numerous shapes and forms and, as pointed out earlier, can be crafted from a host of different materials.
The main support of the cane comes from the shaft which is the long straight part of the cane and it too can be found made of a host of different materials. The wood used for the shaft of the cane often indicated its purpose. Elegant ebony or tortoiseshell shafts with gold or jewelled handles were most often intended for evening wear while lighter woods such as malacca, fruitwood, or bamboo were used during the day for less formal occasions. Make a note when buying canes, that ebony and ebonized are completely different. An ebony shaft means that the cane is made from ebony wood. The color will vary from deep black to dark red. Ebonized, on the other hand, indicates only that the shaft of the cane has been enamelled black or otherwise disguised to mimic ebony wood. Ebony, of course, is the most desirable, but many fine canes can be found wiht ebonized shafts at a lower price.
If the shaft and the handle are made of different materials, as is often the case with more formal or non-folk art canes, they are often held together by a band or collar which was used to hide the joint and to provide decorative accents to the cane. Earlier sticks dating prior to the mid-18th century usually had no collars and those following shortly after had thin collars. By the beginning of the 19th century, artisans began using the collar as an integral part of the cane's overall decoration making them much wider and in many cases intricately chased and incised. The collar was often used for inscriptions on presentation canes and sterling and gold collars can often be found on many canes whose owners could not afford to have a larger handle made completely of precious metal.
You may notice a small eyelet drilled near the top of many canes and lined with metal or ivory. Wrist Cords were passed through these holes and could be worn around the wrist for easier carrying. Finally, the ferrule protects the tip of the cane and can often be used as a fairly accurate telltale of the age of your cane. Some ferrules are made of the same material as the handle, while most were simply made of some other durable material like hard metal. Earlier canes were made with a longer brass ferrule, sometimes 6 or 7 inches, in order to protect the cane from mud on unpaved roads. As more and more roads, especially those in the city, were blacktopped ferrules became progressively shorter. Most folk art canes do not have a ferrule.
Displaying your canes
Displaying your cane collection is a matter of personal taste. A small collection can be attractively displayed in something as simple as an umbrella stand. There are many stands specifically made to display canes and they can vary greatly in shape and price. Wall racks also make attractive displays.
Porcelain, glass, enamel and jewelled canes should be displayed carefully so as not to allow them to bump one another. Many a fine cane has been damaged due to a careless display. As a dealer in important and rare canes, I carry an extensive selection of display cases that allow for safe and handsome displays.
Building Your Collection
Building any kind of fine antique collection is a highly personal endeavor and whichever road you choose to follow, if you adhere to the premise of quality over quantity you will be well on your way to amassing a valuable collection. Collections of any kind that hold superior value and importance are those whose pieces were selected primarily for their quality, rarity or provenance and secondly for their price.
Generally, decorative canes of exceptional beauty or complete system canes bring a higher price than those with damage or those that are incomplete. The exception will lie with canes made of exotic and rare materials or with those that carry with them a special provenance.
As a rule, it is always advisable to buy from a respected dealer. If you find a cane, shake it and listen, there could be a treasure inside and unexpected finds are always the best and most memorable. But beware. Reproductions abound and unscrupulous dealers will try to pass them off as authentic.
As in other rare antiques areas, there are several wonderful reference books on antique walking sticks, but there are a few I highly recommend. If you are interested in building your collection around system canes, you will not want to be without "Cane Curiosa," a thorough and definitive work by Catherine Dike. This extensive volume features hundreds of photographs and descriptions of virtually every system cane known. Another indispensable volume for collectors of American canes is "Canes in the United States" also by Catherine Dike.
Other notable works include "Canes Throughout the Ages" by renowned collector Francis Monek and "Canes from the 17th to the 20th Century" by Jeffrey B. Snyder. A wonderful book by Italian collector Alfredo Lamberti provides useful information along with a collection of stunning photographs of both decorative and system walking sticks. Folk Art cane collectors will want to study George H. Meyer's "American Folk Art Canes."