Walking sticks have been around for a long time and were not just used for balance. Historically, sticks have been used as status symbols, weapons and used by the clergy, farmers, countrymen, hikers and tippling canes for people to conceal a measure of their favorite tipple inside the shaft. In the 18th century, the walking stick overtook the sword as a gentleman's 'must have' accessory and since then, walking sticks have been produced in a myriad of designs and styles which we will explore in this article.
We do not supply antique walking sticks but it is obviously an area of great interest to us. Antique canes can fetch prices from several hundred pounds to several thousand. Many of them are very rare or indeed one-of-kind and they can be found from all over the world. From Africa and the Middle East to France and Japan with many different cultural, political and scientific influences.
Due to the fantastic variety, individuality and workmanship that is more than evident when looking at walking sticks, many people collect sticks.
So let's look at the weapons first is these are some of the most imaginative I think. The early sword canes were made in the 18th century. The top or handle is pulled away from the shaft to reveal a blade and beneath the handle there is a tapered section of wood that fits easily in and out of the shaft to 'open' and 'close' the cane.
Most sword canes were made using a bamboo shaft as bamboo is naturally hollow with only the divisions between the chambers inside needing to be cut through to allow the sword access to the end. If other wood is used, the process is like that used to make a graphite pencil. The two lengths are first cut and then hollowed out and then bonded together again to make a hollow tube.
Lots of interesting materials were used to make the handles in antique sword canes, such as ivory, ebony and porcelain.
In some countries nowadays it is illegal to possess, carry or trade in sword sticks as they are considered to be weapons. In the United Kingdom, antique sword sticks which are 100 years old or older are exempt from these laws.
Some other weapons concealed in antique walking canes are whips (cat of nine tails), stiletto (like a long ice pick), guns (where the shaft is disguised as a steel barrel and the ferrule and handle are removed to form a gun!) and daggers. Cane guns are very rare and are mostly found in private and museum collections.
Next, to gadgets! A walking stick lends itself perfectly to hold, conceal or turn into a number of useful gadgets. A quick look at some antique walking canes revealed some ingenius gadgets and tools made for all sorts of uses. From equestrian and dog walking to measuring and smoking the creativity, invention and craftsmanship was amazing!
Cigarette holders (a stick with a hollowed out shaft holding up to 20 cigarettes) and an artists easel stick whereby the stick unscrews into several sections and then is put back together to form an easel on tripod legs, with a compartment for paints, a water bottle and the brass fittings used to make the paper holder for drawing or painting on (like a music stand).
This type of cane, known as a system stick, is a cane that either hides something inside or converts into another object. From 1870 to 1915 over 1500 patents were granted for system canes and the variety is incredible. There were telescopes, fans, perfume bottles, opium holders, dressage whips, trumpets, periscopes, a London cab hailer, compass, apple corer, lighter, bottle opener, cutlery set, whistles, saws, umbrellas, ear trumpet (hearing aid), gof clubs, snooker cues, seats and backgammon sets. Other gadgets made were watches inlaid in the tops or in the shaft with beautifully crafted wind-up mechanisms, measures for measuring anything from horses to fabric and complete tool kits concealed within the shaft.
Now to decorative walking sticks. Handles made from ivory and ebony to amethyst and jade. Various jewels, precious stones, bones and metals were used to make carved animal head toppers, characters and ornate designed handles. The variety is endless and with some of these antique canes aged over 200 years old it is evident that they were made extremely well and have been looked after.
Porcelain handles feature a lot on 18th and 19th century walking sticks. Porcelain is an excellent material to use for stick handles for the following reasons; tough and strong, hard, low permeability and high resistance to chemical attack. The last point is particularly relevant as some materials, such as silver or chrome plate, react with the chemicals from the user's hands and can tarnish. These kind of sticks would need to be held using a gloved hand.
Antique walking sticks fetching tens of thousands of pounds are the bejewelled canes. Diamonds, rock crystal, jade and ruby are all examples of jewels used to make these extravagant sticks with gold and silver elements added aswell.
Even the country walking sticks which we would class as the simplest and most natural type of walking stick were made to an amazing level of craftsmanship. Animal horn, antlers and beautifully carved woods were used with gold and silver used for the collars.
If you are interested in antique walking sticks and would like to start a collection or visit an auction house, have a look at some of the websites below to get started or search "antique walking sticks" or "antique fairs" in Google.