Monday, September 10, 2012
Those Sticks Were Made for More Than Walkin’
QUESTION: I just purchased an unusual antique cane that has a concealed metal rod that lifts up out of the handle. Can you tell me what this would have been used for?
ANSWER: The cane you bought is rather unusual. Believe it or not, it’s called a horse-measuring cane. Gentlemen who purchased horses at auction would use it to measure how many hands high the horse they were interested in was. Often sellers and auctioneers would exaggerate a horse’s measurements to improve its chances of being sold.
About the only place you’ll see canes these days are in pharmacies, hospitals, and retirement villages where people either buy them or use them as a necessity. But at one time fashionable gentlemen and women changed their canes as often as three times a day, perhaps choosing a rustic model for strolling, a silver-topped one for visiting, and gold-headed ebony one for an evening at the opera. Now, however, the fancy cane is a collectible curiosity that fits nicely in an umbrella stand by the front door.
There are basically two kinds of cane collectors: those who buy canes for the beauty of their workmanship or their association with a famous person and those who seek gadget canes, designed for a dual purpose or to conceal a weapon. Your cane belongs in the latter category.
There are children's canes, canes with porcelain handles made at such famous potteries as Meissen, St. Cloud and Wedgwood, and you’ll find a dozen canes with carved ivory-grips. In fact, figured handles have created a whole category of collecting. These come in exquisitely carved examples in the forms of a wolfs', parrot’s, heron’s, rooster’s, fish’s, dog’s, cat’s, or elephant’s head.
Cane makers employed a wide range of materials. One cane might have its stick made of a portion of transatlantic cable, another might be made of small animal vertebrae, and yet another might be made from a wooden propeller.
Gadget canes were so popular that makers crafted them with hidden compartments. For example, a bishop's cane might contain a compartment in the knob for the Host and three attachable compartments to hold items used in administering the sacraments while a tippling stick might contain a flask and a footed brandy glass. One cane might have a radio in its handle, another a camera. A 19th-century cane might have a candle and matches while a 20th-century one a flashlight. One cane could be a harmonica while another a music box.
There are also gadget canes made for specific trades. The one for a surgeon contains his cutting tools. The one for a geologist, a hammer. A tree surgeon’s a cutting saw. There is also a wine taster’s cane with a gimlet to test the cask, and a fisherman's cane that turns into a pole with a reel. One artist's cane might be fitted with watercolors, another might have an easel. An admiral's cane often contained a compass, thermometer, telescope, ruler, ink stand, pencil and protractor.
For the hard of hearing there were canes with an eat trumpet, for the short-sighted, one with opera glasses. The gambler's cane held dice and a number of other games and a patriotic parade-goer's cane might have concealed an American flag.
Smoker's canes make up an entire category by themselves. Some have compartments to hold cigars and a cigar cutter while others have cigarettes, lighters and holders. There are musical canes that become flutes and violins and even rare ebony Scottish canes that unscrewed to form bagpipes.
The most widely collected and most costly canes are the weapon canes. Gun canes have been made since the 16th century for the hunter and for the gentleman farmer. Since the 19th century they have been manufactured for defense with automatic firearms and everything from a revolver to a machine gun, all concealed. It required a great deal of ingenuity to conceal a weapon but cane makers devised ways of encasing every kind of bludgeon and flail, and patented various sword blades.
The development of cars, attache cases and less fashionable attire ended the days of walking sticks in general.
Canes sell for a wide range of prices. A captain’s going-ashore cane, made of hickory with a
handle carved in the form of a dour-faced ship's captain in a frock coat and top hat, brought a whopping $19,800. The cane was the symbol of authority wielded by a whaling captain, and the carving was considered a fine example of folk art.
Generally antique canes aren’t all that expensive. Scrimshaw canes have been sold at auction for up to $4,090, most likely more for the scrimshaw decoration then for the cane, itself. But a nice gadget cane that conceals an American flag can be bought from a dealer for as little as $50 and a gold-headed cane for $75 to $150.
Revolver canes, however, are more expensive. A Remington gun cane with a dog’s-head handle was offered for sale at a gun show for $1,200. A similar cane concealing a gun but having a simple crook handle was on sale at that same show for $650. Among the scarcest are musical instrument canes. A violin cane, for example, can sell for as much as $1,500.