When most people these days think of an antique cane or walking stick, they picture a crooked crutch in the hand of a feeble old man, who’s shaking it at some bothersome young whippersnappers unlucky enough to have crossed his path. But between 1550 and 1930, canes were simply an accessory that a proper lady or gentleman would never leave the house without. They weren't intended to be used as much as worn. And worn they were, by historical figures and fictional characters alike, from Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi to any number of Fred Astaire characters and James Bond.
These elegant statements could be hand-carved out of wood, bamboo, ebony, ivory, narwhal tusk, animal horn, or bone. Sometimes they were made out of porcelain, Bakelite, gold, silver, or glass; enameled or cloisonnéd; or sprinkled with precious gemstones. Many of the materials used in canes, particularly the gemstones and animal bones, were selected because they were thought to give the finished object magical properties.
A walking stick could also be used to punctuate a point, help one when hiking a long trail, dispatch an opponent, show off your carving skills, or hide cash or a rolled up map leading to buried treasure. In fact, the canes, staffs, and scepters that can be traced back to ancient times were often used for precisely such purposes—to fend off wild animal attacks, to travel over rugged terrain on foot, or to convey the status and power of the holder.
Beginning in 16th century Europe, canes became an important part of a person's image, so etiquette regarding walking sticks was established. For example, a gentleman was not to carry his cane under the arm, nor was he to lean on it. It was also bad manners to bring your cane into the presence of an important person like a king, probably because the walking stick might contain a weapon.
Walking sticks are generally classified into three categories: folk art canes, city sticks, and gadget or systems canes.
Probably the most fascinating of these is the gadget cane. In the United States, there were once more than 1,500 patents for gadget canes. These might hide a weapon like a sword or a gun, which could be drawn at a moment’s notice. Your cane might be a convenient container for perfume or alcohol (with a built-in sprayer or flask, as the case may be). Canes could also conceal cigarettes, a pipe, smelling salts, or makeup.
Other canes contained useful tools like microscopes, barometers, horse measures, and even fishing poles. And then there were musical canes, which were designed to hide a violin bow, or doctor canes, which held secret stashes of medical supplies. You never know what you might find inside an antique cane.