A cane is a rod fabricated from wood, metal, plastic, or glass, used by individuals as walking aids, ceremonial or professional batons, or fashionable accessories. Some historians and collectors distinguish canes from walking sticks by materials, with the former constructed from bamboo and reed plants, and the latter from wood, ivory, or bone. Others distinguish on the basis of geographic linguistics-a cane in America is a walking stick in Europe.
Components and Materials
Most walking sticks and canes consist of a handle, shaft, and ferrules, one between the handle and the shaft to support the cane and conceal the juncture where the two meet, and one, at the bottom of the stick, to prevent wear of the shaft and to prevent splitting.
Wood is the most popular material for the shaft, and almost any kind of wood can be used-for example, chestnut, ebony, or beech. Naturally, the more expensive the wood, the more valuable the cane, and choice of material has historically helped to convey the status of the owner. For example, malacca wood, found only in the Malacca district of Malaysia, must be specially cultivated, and Irish blackthorn is a slow-growing wood that must be cut in parts and set aside for years to harden before it can be fashioned into a walking stick. Both types of canes are considered to be highly desirable for collectors. Other materials include ivory, bone, horn, and even glass. Metal and synthetic materials are also frequently used as orthopedic aids.
A cane's handle is traditionally decorative. Tops can be constructed from silver, gold, ivory, horn, or wood. They may also be fitted with precious gems.
The Many Uses of Canes
Early canes probably originated as weapons of defense or as implements used for journeys over rough terrain. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages used them, as did bishops who traveled with sticks called crosiers. Less self-evident is the history and use of the walking stick for its alternative purposes of ceremony, fashion, or a badge of professional rank or membership.
Modern items such as ski poles, pogo sticks, and white sticks for the blind are based on prototypes of canes.
Although in the early 2000s the cane is considered primarily an orthopedic aid, the ceremonial staff was present as early as Egyptian times.
In a historical context, ceremonial walking sticks and staffs have traditionally conveyed a sense of law and order to others. For example, in the fifteenth century, canes were important royal accessories. Henry VIII used a cane to symbolize British royal power. The cane has also functioned as a ceremonial token of military might. A short stick or baton was a favorite accessory for military officers in Europe between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Canes were not only used in formal military dress but were also sometimes given to commemorate honorable service. It was thought that these canes bestowed confidence upon their owners, and British swagger sticks take their name from this thought. Ceremonial canes may also function as a badge of office or member-ship, and universities, political parties, and trade guilds adopted their usage for these purposes. The walking stick figures heavily into the official insignia of the medical profession. In the caduceus motif, a snake entwines around a walking stick, and this was modeled on the staff of Aesculapius. In Greek myth, Aesculapius's staff had the power to heal and thus symbolizes the godlike power attributed to the medical profession in modern times.
In addition to symbolic ceremonial usage, canes and walking sticks were also indispensable fashion accessories for men and women between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, used to display a sense of gentility and social propriety. During this period, canes could be distinguished by day and evening use, and it was assumed that an individual of good social standing would have a cane for every occasion, much in the way that women had an array of daily toilettes. Day canes were wide-ranging in their styles, and rare and expensive materials, ornamentation, and intricate decoration helped to express wealth and taste to others. While men's sticks were stately, women's sticks were often delicately accentuated with ribbons or gilding. Evening sticks were more homogeneous in style. Traditional evening canes were usually made from ebony and were narrower and sometimes shorter than day sticks.
Silver knobs or gold bands decorated ferrules and handles. These types of canes are those of popular imagination, featuring heavily into early twentieth-century Hollywood films.