Canes are as old as history. As long as there have been sticks, there have been walking sticks. But as is the way with things to which humans have applied their creativity, along the way canes were elevated from tool to accessory to art. By the 18th century, canes were a compulsory part of any gentleman's wardrobe. And by the end of the 19th century, canes had become wildly innovative, sometimes downright silly, and often uniquely beautiful.
In our Important Fall Auction we are offering a single-owner collection of over 75 canes that range from elaborate "system" canes to delicate ladies' canes. And so to illuminate the world of canes as both fashion accessory and decorative collectible, here are a few things to know about canes.
Parts of the Cane
When collecting canes, the detail, originality, and rarity of its various parts play greatly into a cane's value, so it's important to know how they are referenced.
The handle: this is, most obviously, the top part of the cane by which it is held. This is usually the most decorative element. Handles are fashioned from precious metals, various bone, valuable hardwood, ivory, or really anything else a craftsman could carve.
Very Decorative Ivory Pique Top Cane
The collar: the ring of metal just below the handle by which it is attached to the shaft. In fine canes the collar is generally at least detailed in some way, if not downright ornate.
Cane with Carved Ivory Tiger Head
The shaft: the "stick" part of the cane. Cane shafts are usually made from hardwood, and the rarer the wood the more valuable the cane. But, like the handle, the imagination and skill of the craftsman was really the only factor limiting the material of the shaft. In our Important Fall Auction we have canes with shafts of glass, whale bone, and narwhal tusk, and more.
Nautical Cane, Narwhal Tusk
The ferrule: the tip of the cane that makes contact with the ground. The length of this end-cap is an important part of dating a cane. When roads were still unpaved and muddy, ferrules tended to be longer, in order to protect the material of the shaft from moisture and muck. But as more and more roads were cobbled or paved, cane ferrules got shorter and shorter. So the longer the ferrule, the older the cane.
Pique Ivory Top Cane
System Canes v. Fashion Canes
As a required accessory, the fashionable member of society had a variety of canes suited to different activities and times of day. Canes actually used for walking or sport could be quite rustic. For the office, one carried a quiet, sober cane. But for evening and society functions, the more ornamental the cane, the better.
Cane with Ivory Knob Carved as Nesting Partridges
Once canes became ubiquitous, it was only natural that the high demand would prompt canemakers to branch out in their design. "System" or "gadget" canes - canes that doubled as some kind of tool or gimmick - were born. Some system canes were genuinely useful, others more of a showpiece. As Leland Little Fashion Director Pam Briggs notes, "there were only so many times you could visit with the neighbors before you ran out of things to say. System canes gave you something to talk about." The entertainment cane - one in our Fall sale comes complete with a kaleidoscope, a shaker and four miniature dice - was perfect for a social call. Other system canes were indeed functional, but for tasks that belonged to a distinct segment of society. For instance, the picnic cane, with tiny fork and knife; the equestrian measuring cane, out of which can be slipped a rule with measures in both inches and hands; or the wine-tasting cane, which carries its own flask and glass. During the 18th and 19th centuries, more than 1500 patents were filed for the design of system canes.
Artist's System Cane
The Legality of Canes
At their most popular, canes came with their own rules and etiquette. In 18th century England, these rules were strict enough to be written into law. A gentleman needed a license to carry a cane in public, and was not permitted to carry it under his arm, hang it on a button, or brandish it, else it would be confiscated. In France, canes were banned all together in public gatherings for fear they might conceal a weapon. This was apparently a well-founded suspicion, as weapon canes were often used by French rioters in the 19th century. Weapons canes were generally less decorative than their less sinister counterparts, so as not to draw too much attention. Le Terrible and La Redoutable, with small blades that could be popped out of the shaft, causing great injury to anyone who tried to grab them, are two of the most pernicious French weapon cane designs, and are very rare and therefore highly collectible.
La Redoutable Defense Cane
Whether as weapon, tool, or ornament, canes in their heyday were an invaluable way for men of the age to protect and proclaim their honor and status - both paramount personal assets. And for the modern imagination, canes are wonderful way to open a window into the customs and curiosity of life in centuries past.
Content created by the Leland Little editorial team