GADGET CANES: INGENIOUS AND VALUABLE
Violin; mahogany tau handle; chamber holds mahogany fitted horse hair bow with dark horn and ivory decoration; attributed to Moritz Wilhelm Gloesel; Austrian; circa 1860; 34 inches long; $11,200. Photo courtesy of Tradewinds
Canes have come a long way from the simple tree branches once used for getting around, fending off thugs, and parting the underbrush.
The painter Toulouse Lautrec enjoyed a wee nip of absinthe throughout his day, a substance he cleverly stashed in a flask fitted neatly into the shaft of his cane.
More status symbol than walking aid throughout history, the ends of some canes popped off and revealed secret objects like guns and daggers as well as common objects like cameras, mirrors, music boxes, violins, snuff boxes, and even eating utensils.
Neatly tucked inside the shaft, a physician could stash his surgical instruments. A tailor could easily find his needle and thread. A sailor might uncover his telescope. An artist his brushes and paints. All within the confines of what appeared to be a simple cane. These “gadget” canes were their own kind of wallet or bag.
Canes date back thousands of years. No less than 132 were uncovered in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The French philosopher Voltaire boasted more than 75 in his collection. Prince Albert was never without one. George Washington treasured the cane he received from Benjamin Franklin with a gold head in the form of a cap of liberty.
Presenting canes was a form of admiration. At one time every gentleman carried one.
Canes evolved into the neckties of the 17th, 18th and 19th century. Men chose them to match their outfits the way they select ties now to complement their suits. Canes weren’t strictly a male mainstay either.
No successful lady would be seen without her walking stick in hand which might also conceal the smelling salts she needed when her corset proved to be too tight in the Victorian era. Or, her cane could mask the opera glasses she relied on when her seat was too far away from the stage.
Nowadays, these gadget canes are of serious interest to collectors, especially young collectors who appreciate their design and history. It’s a lost art. The best are mini works of art created by some of the best artisans of the day.
These dual-purpose canes are believed to have been in existence at least since the sixth century when two Persian monks supposedly smuggled silkworm larvae out of China inside hollowed-out staves.
More than 1500 patents for gadget canes were applied for during the 18th and 19th century. Because they were utilitarian, they’re usually not as beautifully adorned as decorative canes. Some of the most plentiful gadget canes conceal weapons.
Rarity and quality of workmanship are critical factors in valuing gadget canes. Age alone, is secondary. Are the contents complete? That’s important. Do you know how it works?
Because an object is carefully disguised, people don’t always recognize the gadget hidden within the cane. Sometimes a fine line on the shaft will indicate that two pieces of wood have been fitted together.
On Sept. 20, Tradewinds Antiques in Danvers, Mass., featured its Antique Cane auction. Here are some current values for gadget canes.
American parade flag; round wood handle; straight-pull allows cotton flag to appear; 1889; 34 3/4 inches long; $1,232.
Knife; Beheading, depicts a blackamoor with white glass eyes; horn handle; knife stored behind ferrule; circa 1885; 33 1/4 inches long; $2,240.
Toiletry; hardwood crook handle; collar unscrews containing rag for polishing shoes, shaft with six compartments for toothbrush, tooth paste, cologne, razor, comb, etc., 1892; 34 2/3 inches long; $2,352.
Swiss music box; carved-wood pug handle; removable panel in back to insert works; circa 1900; 34 3/4 inches long; $6,440.
Violin; mahogany tau handle; chamber holds mahogany fitted horse hair bow with dark horn and ivory decoration; attributed to Moritz Wilhelm Gloesel; Austrian; circa 1860; 34 inches long; $11,200.
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