One of M.S. Rau’s favorite categories in the realm of antiques — and undoubtedly one of the most collectible — are antique walking sticks. This is because antique canes are each highly individualistic, encompassing a vast scope of functions, designs and materials. They were crafted for an almost endless variety of uses, from the obvious — a simple aid for balance — to the more unexpected. Many canes conceal a hidden purpose, lending a sense of mystery to the unassuming walking stick. Personal protection, professional aids, entertainment and fashion — canes were made for all of these uses and more. As a result, there is truly an antique cane for every collector.
The walking stick, which was initially an indispensable aid for the infirm or a functional tool for shepherds and farm hands, evolved into much more over the centuries. It became one of the most stylish accessories for men and women alike. In fact, no fashionable individual would have traversed the public arena without a cane in hand. Meanwhile, the working class desired canes more practical in nature. Canes were useful for walking, but could also be used for salesmen to carry samples in, sailors to navigate the high seas or even to hide your bootleg liquor during the Prohibition era.
The wonderful thing about walking sticks is that you can collect based on your own personality. Having a basic knowledge of the types of canes available gives you a starting point to explore the type of antique cane you would ultimately like to collect.
Categorizing Walking Sticks
There are many types of walking sticks, but we can typically split them into four categories: decorative, folk art, weapon and system. While the distinctions can be fuzzy for many sticks, these categories provide a solid foundation for organizing the thousands of canes that have been produced over the past several hundred years.
Antique Decorative Canes
These canes, existing purely for aesthetic reasons, are the most common type of antique walking sticks to be found. As a rule, gentlemen and ladies of the 19th and early 20th centuries owned a variety of walking sticks. They were considered a fashion accessory; therefore, canes were elegantly and elaborately decorated in a variety of materials and styles to coordinate with the fashions of the day. Because canes were an identifier of style and taste, craftsmen tried to keep up with fashionable trends to appeal to the desires of high society. The wearers of these great sticks — the nobility, elite and aristocracy — clamored for the most ornate examples crafted of only the finest materials. Makers such as Fabergé
(of the “Fabergé egg” fame) took to these new trends and crafted bejeweled and enameled walking sticks to fit the taste of their time.
Antique Folk Art Canes
Folk art is formally defined as art created by or for indigenous cultures where the rules of perspective and proportion are not utilized. Naturally, folk art traditions extended to the realm of walking sticks. In particular, exceptional wood carving sets apart the folk art cane from all others. These canes are often characterized by long, wooden shafts topped by tribal, primitive, religious
or geographically-specific figures.
Antique System Canes
This type of cane, also known as a “gadget” cane, conceals a hidden purpose, possessing a specific function beyond what the eye can initially see. Explained simply, it is a cane that “does” something. From games and sunshades to cigarette dispensers
and ladies’ fans, system canes are remarkably diverse in their purpose, and they are thus often most interesting to collectors. In fact, in the United States alone, there were once more than 1,500 patents for different system canes!
An important subset of system canes is occupational canes. These are walking sticks that were once used by professionals such as doctors or jewelers, and which contains all of the important tools of the trade. A physician’s cane might have contained a scalpel and syringe, while a seamstress’s cane could hold a needle, thimble and thread. The sheer variety and complexity of these walking sticks continues to fascinate even the most seasoned collectors.
Antique Weapon Canes
At first glance, weapon canes appear just like any functional walking stick; however, these deadly canes conceal a discreetly hidden weapon inside. They include a variety of different types; shafts could conceal a dagger, a razor blade, a sword or even a pistol.
Collecting Tips to Consider
While walking stick shafts are almost always made of wood or bamboo, their handles can be crafted from a variety of materials. Materials such as carved wood or bone lend a sense of rustic artistry to a cane, which a more elegant cane may have a handle formed from gilded silver. Makers like the famed Fabergé created beautifully enameled toppers, while important presentation canes sometimes boasted knobs crafted from 18K gold
While many collectors don’t intend to actively use their cane collection, many antique canes
are in excellent condition and can still be used for their original purpose. If you are looking for a cane to stroll the streets, there are a few things you may wish to consider, first and foremost being its sturdiness and its height. Canes that are used as a fashion accessories rather than stabilizers may not need to be particularly strong. However, be sure to always test a walking stick’s sturdiness to ensure it will meet your needs. Similarly, height is very important if the cane needs to serve a practical purpose. If you need the cane for balance, a good rule of thumb is that is should be within about one inch of half the user’s height.
Perhaps you’d like a cane that looks just like your pooch, or maybe a cane that reflects your political affiliations. Remember, more than any other collectible antique, the walking stick is a reflection of the person carrying it, so buy antique canes accordingly and let your personality shine!
To start your own cane collection, click here
to see the wide variety we have to offer, or here
to browse our latest cane catalog. Happy walking!