Getting a Handle on Collecting Antique Walking Sticks

A late Victorian sterling silver figural dog's head cane, valued at $650.

Walking sticks, or canes as they are sometimes known, have been in the hands of man since he first walked the earth. Since then, walking sticks have been used for both practicality and decoration throughout history. King Tut had more than a hundred buried with him to accompany him in the afterlife. King Louis XIV never appeared in public without one. Henry VIII and his court are pictured with highly embellished canes. Queen Victoria had a whole collection of them. George Washington bequeathed to his brother the gold-handled cane that Benjamin Franklin had left to him.

Walking sticks have represented symbols of power and defined class, and in the 16th century they evolved into a fashion accessory for the socially prominent. Men of means and rank—be they European or American—were depicted in portraits with their walking stick. In the mid-19th century, Victorian walking sticks were a part of the elegantly dressed gentleman’s attire, and he would change a cane as often as he changed his clothes. A gentleman never carried a cane—he “wore” one. And when women began smoking in public, they also wore walking sticks. The golden age of canes flourished between 1830 (with their most widespread popularity in the latter half of the 19th century) and the First World War.

An early 20th-century, large carved ivory Greyhound cane, with glass eyes, hallmarked Sterling silver collar (engraved with a monogram and a crest) and hardwood shaft. Valued at $975.

This Victorian ivory horse cane with Sterling silver collar, decorated with a horseshoe, jockey's cap and whip over ebony shaft, is valued at $2,100.

By the late 19th century, the Victorian influence had spread to the United States, and fashionable American gentlemen and women owned several canes for different occasions and social events. They became the ultimate fashion accessory, like the hat and gloves. Many of these walking sticks had handles that were engraved with the owner’s monogram or, when decorated with inscriptions, served as mementos or presentation pieces. Manufactories and shops specializing in walking sticks began to flourish as canes were designed by renowned artists like Tiffany in America, Faberge in Russia, Thomas Brigg & Sons in England, Magasin Antoine in Paris and the Meyers family in Germany. By the first two decades of the 20th century, there were approximately 265 cane manufacturers in existence and more than 100 companies specialized in handles alone. During the whaling era in the 19th century, American sailors at sea fashioned scrimshaw canes made from baleen, whalebone vertebrae and whale ivory.

An ornate, gold-filled chased & engraved dress cane with snakewood shaft, circa 1870s, valued at $750.

Canes fall into a few categories: folk art, decorative or dress canes, and gadget or system sticks, which actually do things due to the variety of mechanisms and devices that could be embedded in their shafts and handles. The main parts of the cane are its handle, the collar, the eyelet, the shaft and the tip, also known as the ferrule. Handles could be crutch, knobs, L-shaped, pistol grip or crook in shape and may be of ivory, bone, tortoise shell, rhino horn, ebony and other hardwoods, gold, silver and even glass. The collar is the strip below the handle concealing the joint between the handle and the shaft, which is the straight part, made of ebony, hardwood, bamboo, bone and often other exotic materials. During the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, eyelet holes were drilled through the shaft by the handle so a cord could pass through and encircle the wrist and people could be hands-free. The tip protected the shaft from wear and was usually made of metal, horn or bone. Originally, these ferrules had protected the shaft from mud before roads became surfaced. Even pedestrians used sticks like a staff to help them navigate ditches and ruts. Often one can gauge the age of the cane because the longer the ferrule, the earlier the cane.

A rare, turn-of-the-century carved-ivory figure of bear. Bear, rabbit and pig handles are scarce. This one is worth $1,500.

A deer-antler frog with horn inlay for eyes, dating from first half of 20th century, on turned hardwood shaft. It’ll cost you $700 for this one.

After the 1920s, the walking stick lost its popularity as the arrival of automobile, the cigarette, the brief case and a less fashion-conscious society ended their demand. They were no longer considered fashionable articles of wear. With the 1929 crash of Wall Street in the United States, the Great Depression spread worldwide, and by that time canes weren’t even considered much of a collectible. Canes were used by those whose age and health required them or by hikers and climbers.

But today, walking sticks are enjoying a tremendous resurgence among collectors who appreciate their unique history, design and wide range of materials. Antique shows, shops and auctions are good places to find them. They can be scored for a few hundred dollars and priced as high as several thousands of dollars, depending on their uniqueness and condition.

A rare, Victorian 11mm pin-fire gun cane with horn cap on the tip. Protection like this will cost you $2,750.

A John Day-patented cap & ball gun cane, circa 1830, which may be used as a pistol or a rifle. John Day is credited with being the first to develop a percussion lock mechanism for a gun cane Valued at $2,250.

A horn, pistol-grip sword cane with push-button release and 15-1/2 in. blade concealed in twig-like hardwood shaft, circa 1870. Valued at $1,750.

I am always bemused whenever someone walks into my booth at an antiques show, exclaims in awe and appreciation over the array of walking sticks, and promises to return when he “needs a cane.” These people miss the point. Unless they are made-up pieces and new, most sticks are rarely sturdy enough to function for total support and were never meant to, though some can and others are stout enough to “spot” the person as they maneuver around. Meanwhile, because of the great range of walking canes out there to be hunted down, they are tremendous fun to collect and don’t take up a lot of room to display.

An extremely large figural seated dog made of horn, circa 1920. Valued at $800.

Kathy Moses Shelton, based in Nashville, Tenn., is owner of Just Looking, which specializes in American antiques, accessories and art (19th century to Modernism), silver, folk and outsider art, and whimsical things. She has been a guest on Martha Stewart Living Television and was an invited speaker on Southern folk and outsider art at Oprah Winfrey’s Color Art Show. You can also view her inventory on GoAntiques.com.

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