A History of Walking Sticks

by Michelle J. Prima


When one thinks of walking sticks in today's society, our first thoughts turn to canes and the infirm.  But the walking stick is much more than an aide.  Over the centuries it has been used for many purposes, from weaponry to clothing accessory.  It has been a symbol of authority, as well as a decorative appendage. 

The walking stick has three main parts--the 'handle' by which the stick is held, the 'shaft' or straight part of the stick, a 'band' or 'collar' which joins the handle to the shaft if they are of different materials, a 'ferrule' or tip, and the 'wrist cord' for carrying.  A ferrule was usually metal to protect the end of the stick.  Sometimes, however, it was of a material that matched the handle, such as ivory horn, silver or gold.  Before roads were paved, the ferrule was three to four inches long.



Although the first sticks were probably used to help one stand, they became both weapons and symbols of authority.  The larger and stronger the man, the larger the stick.  As centuries passed, man added stones, points and hatchets to the sticks, which then became weapons as well as walking aides.  The most elaborate of sticks would belong to the chiefs of tribes.  These were often elaborately carved with emblems pertaining to the tribe.

In ancient Egypt, a stick was an object of prime importance. But while everyone had one, they varied by the person's occupation.  A shepherd's staff was different from a merchant's, whose was different from a priest's or Pharaoh's.  The stick remained with a person even in death, when it was placed in the coffin beside the mummy to protect the deceased on his travels.

The middle ages were dominated by the church, and this showed in the design of the walking sticks.  The decorations were crosses and bishop's crosiers.  Some even contained hiding places for money, precious stones and secret weapons. 

European kings used canes or sticks as a symbol of authority.  Many monarchs, such as Henry VIII and Charles I have their hands resting on sticks in their portraits.  Louis XIV 'wore' his canes, and the court followed suit. (Although they could not be worn to court in the presence of the king.)  The knobs and handles of many royal sticks were embellished with precious jewels.

Once the industrial revolution came about in the 19th century, canes were manufactured in mass by the hundreds of thousands.  Stores carried specialty canes as well, some even designed by the leading silversmiths of the day.


Decorative Sticks

The decorative sticks we see today in collections are mostly from the 19th century and up to about 1920.  These were mainly fashion accessories and came in a variety of materials.  Handles could be silver, ivory, porcelain, wooden, or glass.  Silver was popular, and ranged from simple round knobs to elaborate animal figures.  Ivory was also popular, and like silver, came in a variety of subjects.  There were animals, flowers, vegetables and even human figures for handles.  Porcelain handles were made mainly from molds.  Wood handles were carved by hand, sometimes by shepherds and prisoners of war. 

Gadget Sticks

While the term 'gadget' stick is new, the concept is old.  The term applies to those walking sticks which had a dual purpose.  Approximately two thousand patents were issued for sticks such as these.

Gadget sticks can be subdivided into categories--those which contain a place to hide something, those with some other purely functional alternate use, and those which represent the rank, function or profession of the owner. Gadget sticks can also be divided into uses--serious walking, city use, emblem or tool for profession, or as a weapon.

Country walking sticks remain popular still today.  Some have a compass in the handle, and others may be devoted to a country pasttime such as fishing, golfing or riding.

City walking sticks were more for show than use.  Elegant ladies and gentleman carried them as a reflection of manners.  They often hid snuff, pipe tobacco or chewing tobacco inside the handles.  The shaft could hide cigars, cigarettes or matches.  Some were even used to carry drugs, illegal or otherwise.  Some walking sticks had watches or other scientific gadgets in their handles.  They also held opera glasses, binoculars and telescopes.  Some walking sticks even converted into musical instruments--portable music before the invention of the radio!

Professional walking sticks reflected the trade of the owner. These often represented a trade or legal service, such as a magistrate or police officer.

The last category of use is weaponry.  Not only could they be used as the weapon, but they could conceal weapons.  If a shaft were sturdy enough, and the handle heavy enough (such as brass), used properly, the stick could do some serious damage.  Concealed weapons included blades, spikes, pistols and swords.  Fortunately, it is illegal in most countries to carry concealed weapons such as these. 



Walking Sticks by Catherine Dike, Shire Publications, Ltd., 1996.


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