CANES, SO MUCH MORE THAN WALKING STICKS
Gun cane curio; Remington dog-head; classic hound head; circa 1865; 38 inches long; $8,960. Photo courtesy of Tradewinds
The story goes that canes originated in the 6th century when two Persian monks smuggled silkworm larvae out of China inside hollowed out staves.
The French philosopher Voltaire owned 60 canes. His contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau had 40.
In 18th century France canes were especially trendy. More a fashion statement than walking aide, men as well as women carried and owned a wide variety of walking sticks.
Used like a purse or wallet, things like perfume bottles, music boxes and opera glasses could be easily hidden away inside a woman’s cane. Men’s canes could disguise revolvers, fishing poles, liquor and even flutes and violins.
Called gadget or system canes, these walking sticks are some of the most sought after today among collectors. They’re neat.
During the 18th and 19th centuries more than 1,500 patent applications were made for different types of gadget canes.
By the 18th century, practical jokers could purchase canes that squirted water up the leg of unsuspecting people. Piano tuners carried canes concealing tuning hammers. Photographers had walking sticks that converted into tripods.
In the days of the horse-and-carriage, canes transformed into buggy whips. If a ladies corset proved too tight at the opera causing her to faint, a little “vinaigrette” contained in the holes of her cane handle might easily revive her.
Whether for medicinal purposes, as smuggling devices, traveling taverns, or tools of the trade, canes became status symbols for the self-indulgent. The variety of hidden treasures inside was infinite.
Carl Faberge of Russia and Tiffany Studios in America produced some of the most exquisite and expensive canes available.
The terms walking stick and cane are interchangeable. Even so, the old adage says that one strolls with a walking stick and staggers with a cane. Whatever that means.
One of the most interesting canes to me was made for morticians. Very rare. Popular in the 18th and 19th centuries when epidemics were widespread, these canes consisted of a brass rod with measurement indicators that slide from the cane’s shaft. It made for easy measurement at burial time.
A critical requirement in valuing gadget canes is completeness. Missing parts are common and really detract from their value.
Because they were utilitarian, gadget canes were usually less fancy than other decorative canes. So, it’s easy to dismiss or overlook them completely.
One way to detect a gadget inside is to tap the cane against a knee and listen for a rattle. Or, carefully pull and twist the handle. Or, look for a fine line on the cane’s shaft which indicates two pieces of wood fitted together.
By the 1920s, interest in gadget canes all but vanished. Many ended up as playthings for children and parts scattered. That’s part of the problem.
Rarity and workmanship also play a part in desirability and value is often influenced by the cane’s function.
On Oct. 2, Tradewinds Antiques featured its Antique Cane auction in Manchester-by-The-Sea, Mass. Here are some current values for gadget and other canes offered in the sale.
Piano tuner’s cane; stylized bird handle; shaft comes apart becomes a mouth tuner calibrated to “A”; circa 1920s; 33 1/2 inches long; $3,920.
Pomander cane; ivory top unscrews and holds cotton saturated in healing herbs or salts; circa 1695; 36 1/3 inches long; $7,280.
Gun cane curio; Remington dog-head; classic hound head; circa 1865; 38 inches long; $8,960.
Violin cane; with horse-hair bow; produces a fine sound; probably Austrian, circa 1860; 35 1/3 inches long; $8,960.
Gargoyle handled cane, made by Tiffany; sterling “L” handle; 34 inches long; circa 1900; $10,360.
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