For more than two hundred years walking sticks and canes were as crucial a part of the male wardrobe as a pair of trousers is now. A gentleman would often have a number of canes; a more rustic style stick for walking the dogs, a more sober cane for the office and a more decorative exotic example for going to dinner and to the opera, perhaps with a shaft made of rosewood or similar and with a gorgeous handle made out of something such as tortoise shell. They were carried, not as a walking aid, but were mainly a fashion accessory; as an ornament and an indication of the owner’s wealth and status. The most common was the ivory-handled malacca cane, the wood of which was brought back to Britain as an exotic item, coming from the Strait of Malacca in Malaysia.
The Victorian age and the Industrial Revolution, brought the newly rich middle class who liked to display their recently acquired wealth through an extensive collection of canes. Cane factories opened all over Europe: in London, Paris and Vienna. Handles became increasingly individual and the more decorative sticks are mostly from the 19th century up to the mid 1920’s. These came in a variety of materials. Handles could be silver, ivory, porcelain, wooden, or glass. Wood handles were often quite intricate and carved by hand. Many had animal heads, typically dogs.
Approximately two thousand patents were issued for sticks that had a dual purpose. Several different types of ‘gadget’ stick were made:
• Those which contained a place to conceal something; the handles often hiding pipe tobacco, snuff, or chewing tobacco. Alternatively the stick shaft could be used to conceal cigars, cigarettes or a flask of liquor. A stick could also be designed to conceal a weapon – typically a blade, spike or sword. It is, however, now illegal to carry such an item in public.
• Those with some other functional alternate use; automaton canes with a handle in the form of a bird or animal head, cunningly designed so that the mouth could open to hold gloves while the owner was at the opera. Some walking sticks had a telescope, watch or a compass in the handle while others had a parasol or umbrella in the shaft. There were even sticks that doubled as golf clubs, so you could practice whilst on a stroll through the park.
Bentleys has a wonderful selection of Canes that would make an excellent gift for the modern ‘dandy’ or collector.