First used as a weapon, the walking stick or cane has long been a symbol of strength and power, authority and social prestige, predominantly among men. George Washington (1732–1799), the first American president, carried one, as did later U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) and Warren G. Harding (1865–1923).
The walking stick dates back to ancient times. The Bible makes numerous references to the walking staff as a symbol of office and dignity. Judging from its depiction in paintings, the walking stick became a widely recognized accessory of elegance and social status in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was during this period that special rules of etiquette developed governing the use of the walking stick, including where and how to carry it.
During the eighteenth century the walking stick gained wider acceptance. Modest canes were used among ordinary people, while those who could afford it opted for walking sticks of great elegance and style. Etiquette rules were greatly relaxed and owners could now safely lean on their canes in casual poses.
The end of the nineteenth century marked a decline in cane styles. While there were still beautiful walking sticks produced during this period, elaborate ornamentation was often used to make up for a lack of form. In the early years of the twentieth century, mass production helped make walking sticks inexpensive and accessible to the masses. The modern crook-handled wooden cane became the standard walking stick for most people.
There were, of course, still attempts to add style to the walking stick. Decorative trim was added to some sticks in the form of silver, gold, or mother-of-pearl inlays. Sometimes the silver handle doubled as a pipe holder. The turn-of-the-twentieth-century Oxford stick had a crook handle that held ten cigarettes and a matchbox.
More often than not, however, such flourishes were designed strictly for show, to create a higher commercial grade for the more discriminating purchaser. An affluent walking stick enthusiast might order an ornate cane, but on the whole there was an erosion of style and individuality in the years leading up to World War I (1914–18). The advent of the automobile and modern public transportation rendered the cane less and less useful, necessary only for those whose age or disability required them to use one. Late in the twentieth century, however, recreational goods manufacturers began to sell walking sticks under the name of trekking poles. Made of aluminum and high-tech fibers, with complicated shock absorbing mechanisms, the poles were sold to hikers to help maintain balance at prices over one hundred dollars a pair.
Hart, Edward. Walking Sticks. Marlborough, UK: The Crowood Press, 1986.
Snyder, Jeffrey B. Canes: From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997.
[ See also Volume 3, Seventeenth Century: Canes ]