THE VARIETY OF walking sticks is endless. The most desired canes are those made from Malaccan palm, from Malaysia. Every material under the sun has been used for handles: ivory, tortoise-shell, ram’s horn, narwhal tusk, silver gilt, porcelain, gold. A typical mid-19th-Century cane might have had a carved-horn handle in the form of an elephant with a turquoise collar.
During the 19th Century, more than 600 types of canes designed to serve a dual purpose were patented in England; more than 500 were patented in the United States. Walking sticks concealed horse-measuring rules, photographic tripods, detective cameras, medical kits, even music stands.
In the 19th Century, too, it grew more common to include in gentlemen’s canes such accessories as a watch, a telescope or a flask. Sticks can often be found with the handle in the form of an animal head, the hinged jaws opening to hold a glove; a rarer spittoon cane has a hollow shaft and a carved dog’s-head handle with nostrils into which a tobacco-chewing gentleman could spit unobtrusively while at church or concert. For more refined sensibilities, there were canes with handles that housed a cigar clipper, a cab whistle and a flint lighter, or that dispensed cigarettes one at a time.
Ladies were not forgotten: A 1920s cane contains a compact; a self-defense cane has six spikes that spring out from the head at the touch of a button; a European lady’s cane with an enamel collar and ebonized shaft has a rose-quartz handle inset with rock-crystal cameos depicting insects, horseshoes and birds.
Most intriguing are walking sticks that conceal weapons. A typical example is the sword stick, with a slender steel blade attached to the cane handle and concealed within the shaft of the stick. Sword canes could be the subject of an entire collection. But the most lethal canes of all are those hiding firearms, from a pistol to a small cannon. The “cheroot cane,” fired by touching a lighted cigar to a hole at the top of the handle, was a favorite of the Mississippi river-boat gamblers.
Today the use of a cane usually indicates only that the owner has sprained an ankle. Antique walking sticks, on the other hand, call back more gracious and more amusing times than our own.
House of Canes in North Hollywood has an extensive collection. Also, Antique World in Sherman Oaks; Pasadena Antique Center and Cranberry Cottage, both in Pasadena; Antique Alley in Ventura; Panache Unlimited in Fullerton; Antique Emporium in Costa Mesa; Old Chicago Antique Mall in Buena Park; Butterfield’s Antique Mall in Wilmington; Country Living Antiques in Newport Beach; Antique Adventure and Spinners Antiques, both in Oceanside, and Treasure Trove in San Diego.