Victorian Walking Cane: Wayne Curtis writes: “Canes mark a time when we once walked everywhere, and it was central to our lives. Walking was cruising before cars took over. And you didn’t just go schlumping around in your velour sweats. You put on a walking outfit and you walked with purpose and style.”
Photo Credit & Source: CanesGalore
A century and a half ago, walking sticks and canes weren’t just associated with the aged, but with young dandies and others of dapper inclination. These were essentially vestigial artifacts of the 16th and 17th century, when nobility carried canes encrusted with jewels, which were themselves distant ancestors of royal scepters conferring power. For a time, ornate canes were made by Faberge in Russia and by Tiffany in the United States. A craze for canes made of allspice wood nearly pushed these West Indian trees into extinction. The Malacca cane, made from a prized type of rattan, was hugely in demand around 1900. As one writer put it at the time, he knew of those “who make a cult of Malacca canes, just as some dog fanciers are devotees of the Airedale terrier.”
But as status objects are wont to do, these markers of status migrated over time further down into the middle classes, who wanted to affect a regal air. In 1847, Paris had 165 workshops employing nearly a thousand people making walking sticks and whips, presumably not all for nobles. The latter half of the 19th century was the golden era for flamboyant canes. Even as late as 1918, Robert Cortes Holliday wrote of their popularity, noting that, “a man cannot do manual labour carrying a cane,” and therefore it is “a symbol of a superior caste.” Holliday added that “canes are indispensable to the simple vanity of the Bohemian” and observed that “all artists carry them; and the poorer the artist the more attached is he to his cane.”
Yet even Bohemians needed tools. So canes were developed to have practical uses while cleverly hiding their utility. Last Saturday, the Kimball H. Sterling Auction Gallery in Tennessee held a sale of more than two hundred vintage canes, including a great number of what collectors call “system canes.” One was designed for midwives and had a baby scale hidden within it; others concealed a picnic utensil set, opera glasses, an ear trumpet, a perfume bottle, a detachable baby rattle, a blow gun, a winemaker’s thermometer, a folding fan, a telescope, a flask with cork top, a pocket watch, a sewing kit, a compact and mirror, a full-length saw blade, a microscope, a pennywhistle, a set of watercolors and paintbrush, a whistle for hailing a cab, and gauges for measuring the height of a horse.
The Victorian walking stick was the Swiss Army Knife of the pre-automotive era: something useful, easily carried, able to provoke small wonderment when shown off, and useful as weaponry in certain circumstances.In a period when people walked more often, since there were few choices of transportation other than a horse or a horse-drawn carriage, it was also necessary to ambulate with a sense of purpose and fashion. To both see and be seen was important in a social sense. Evolutionists would call this “signaling.” Whatever the purpose of the walking cane, it became a symbol of the gentleman out for his morning or evening constitutional, sometimes accompanied by a lady, or not. Today, the walking cane is rarely, if at all, seen; and yet it has been replaced by other objects, equally symbolic of wealth and power, if not purpose.
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