Walking canes were first made in the 17th century and the earliest canes would have been made of malacca, with an ivory handle and a metal ferrule at the base. In the 18th century the man of fashion, often described as a Dandy or Fopp, would have had a wide choice of decorative handles which were made of gold, silver or other precious metals. However it was in the Victorian era that the walking cane really became popular and was adopted as a universal accessory.
The difficulty with collecting antique walking canes is that they are seldom stamped with the maker’s mark, Victorian retailers Brigg and Howell being one of the few that would mark their walking canes. For the collector there is a huge field to choose from and given the diversity of the styles and materials you could put together a very large collection. Shafts were not only made from cane or wood but also from materials like mother of pearl, woven cord or tortoiseshell, while handles can be found in silver, gold and pewter as well as porcelain, enamel, crystal and other semi-precious stones. The wealthy Victorian man might have owned a cane with a handle by Tiffany, Meissen or Wedgwood, while the more humble men had to make do with whale bone or walruss tusk.
There were also great variations in design. Decorative canes were made to show off the owner’s wealth and status as well as their interests and personality and often they had walking canes for different times of the day, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is said to have changed his cane for up to twelve times a day.
The other type of walking cane was know as a systems cane which had a hidden function. Some were hollow and were often used as containers for tools, a carpenter might store a saw or measuring stick, while others might contain snuff or dice. There were canes that come with a seat and were known as a shooting stick, they are still popular today and can often be seen at outdoor events such as country fairs and antique shows.
Among the most popular walking canes were sword sticks, which conceal a blade. As well as a full length sword these canes could also hide a dagger or flick knife. The sword stick was ususally a plain cane, you did not want to draw attention to your hidden weapon. Atomata canes on the other hand were designed to attract attention. They had figural heads and at the touch of a button they would move, rolling their eyes or wiggling their ears. This provided much amusement for the children and a young man might have also used it to entertain the young ladies of the day.
In the Victorian era thousands of patents for systems canes were issued but many were never made. Apparently there was a patent for a bicycle in a cane which needed 132 drawings to demonstrate how to assemble it – sadly, it was never manufactured. These were truly serious boys’ toys.
The 20th century saw the demise of the cane and by the 1940s canes had all but died out. Apart from the odd celebrity who wants to draw attention to himself it is hardly seen and very unlikely to ever come back into fashion. If you are thinking of putting together a collection of antique walking canes you should follow your heart and collect what you like. They are not too expensive and you can get a very nice example of a Victorian walking cane for around £150. A lovely art deco celluloid-handled cane recently sold for £185. Early and rare models would cost more. Providence plays a huge part, the cane twirled by Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times sold in 2004 for £47,800. That is probably a bit steep for most of us but there are very fine examples for a lot less. You might try antique fairs and auctions and these days some nice canes even turn up at car boot sales.