Walking Sticks: Utilitarian & Beautiful Collectibles

Last time I took my grandfather’s walking stick, a true collectibles, for an airing, the neighborhood wits made solicitous inquiries about my “accident”—was it a large truck or a small banana peel?

Back in the 1800s, a glimpse of that gorgeous Malacca would have roused more appreciation. Canes were then an important part of how one presented oneself in public, were almost de rigueur when posing for paintings or photographs, and there was a whole etiquette about how and where they were to be “worn.”

When the Industrial Revolution brought about mechanized mass production, the masses scrambled for sticks produced in Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, London and New York. Walking-stick makers such as Henry Howell, Brigg of London, Tiffany, Magasin Antoine of Paris and the Meyer family of Hamburg and Berlin did brisk business.

Al Jolson and Fred Astaire twirled sticks as they danced up a storm on-screen. Walking sticks soared high in the elegance stakes. And then, in the 1930s, the fad faded.

Now, apart from orthopedic and hiking purposes, walking sticks find few takers in modern society. Once seen as symbols of power and religion and as fashion accessories, they are collected more for their workmanship and beauty than for any actual use.

Types of walking sticks

If you’re new to collecting walking sticks, you’ll be amazed, heart warmed or even alarmed by the sheer range and ingenuity of the sticks available. Everyone from early Neolithic people to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Byzantines to the various Native American tribes and African, Asian and European dynasties to people from more modern times used walking sticks. So walking sticks, in a way, mark the developments in world culture, showing both the individual ideas of the carvers and making a comment on the social and political mores of the times.

The earliest sticks, of course, were prosaic staffs with which to navigate difficult terrain, to ward off wild animals and wilder humans, and to perform religious rites. Then they proved useful, when hollowed out, for sheathing swords or smuggling contraband goods—pilgrims during the Crusades carried out precious icons and artifacts from the Holy Land in their staffs, and later, a couple of priests used their hollowed sticks to transfer silkworms from China to Europe.

Apart from wood, sticks were made of glass, metal, porcelain, ivory, kelp, shagreen, whalebone, whale tooth, baleen, walrus tusks, hippopotamus teeth, rhino horn and other materials. They were elaborately carved with animal motifs and busts of authority figures and embellished with jewels, had metal ferrules to protect against wear and decay, and came in a variety of sizes and shapes—snakes and women being two favorite designs.

Some sticks were dual affairs, doubling as glove holders, perfume dispensers, tweezers holders, umbrellas and fans. The technical minded got ones with cameras, compasses, maps, telescopes and microscopes. The Sunday sportsmen had fishing-rod and golfing sticks, and the musicians trumpet and violin sticks. A medical man carried a stick fashioned as a medical-equipment holder, and his future patients had cigarette-box, alcohol-flask and opium-holder sticks. Other sticks even served as bordello whips, swords, knives, spikes, files and guns.

Buying walking sticks

Current-day stick manufacturers, such as Phoenix Walking Sticks of the U.K., cater mainly to the health service or to the diehard connoisseurs and collectors. If you’re looking for antique walking sticks, antique shops, flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, online and actual auctions would be your best bet.

Value depends on the type of stick, its material, adornment or lack of it, handle designs, ferrule type, rarity of stick, historical context, maker and previous ownership, and demand from collectors.

A stick owned by P.T. Barnum (he of the “There’s a sucker born every minute” fame) sold for $150,000 in the 1980s, and I came across an elegant Russian Faberge Cane by Henrik Wigström (1862-1923) priced at $49,850.

Check the auction results from Worthopedia database for an idea about current walking-stick prices.

To find quality sticks at affordable rates, it helps to know where to look and what to look for. So read books and articles about walking sticks, do online searches using various search engines, join collectors’ associations, subscribe to their newsletters, attend meetings, and follow auction results to stay clued in about prices.

Some tips for collectors—

• Ask the dealer about the history of the stick—where it came from, who made it, who owned it, if there are any photographic records and so on. Provenance is hard to establish with walking sticks as scores of them were easily misplaced, lost, given away, exchanged, sold or thrown away without anyone keeping detailed records.
• Check if the stick is in fine, undamaged condition—although some wear and tear in accordance to its age is to be expected.
• Check the walking stick for engraved names or dates and maker’s marks on the handle, shaft or ferrule.
• Check if all the stick parts are present, original and fit well together.
• Check if the walking-stick design was, indeed, one made during its said era.
• Check if the wood type used was one common to its period and maker.

As with any item that attains some degree of collectibles value, fakes have touched the walking-stick collecting world, too. Buy from reputable sources.

Facts of interest
• American inventors patented 1,500 gadget walking sticks.
• Different craftsmen made different parts of a walking stick.
• Renowned musician Jascha Heifetz owned a violin stick
• Famous walking-stick collectors included King Henry VII, Marquis de Lafayette, Voltaire, Rousseau, Louis XIV, Napoleon, George Washington, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
• King Tutankhamen’s burial chamber contained more than 130 beautiful walking sticks
• The newly elected president of the United States receives a presentation cane.
• Cane and walking stick are often interchangeable terms, still “one swaggers with a cane, but staggers with a walking stick.”

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