GADGET CANES AT TOP OF THEIR GAME AT TRADEWIND'S
Gaming Cane; includes ivory pieces; letters for word games plus spinner and chips; English circa 1890; 36 inches long; sold for $4,200. Photo courtesy of Tradewinds Antiques.
Every well dressed man in the 19th century carried a cane. Much like a briefcase or backpack today, novelty “gadget” canes showed up by the thousands.
These ingenious devices turned simple walking sticks into carrying cases. They enclosed everything from whiskey flasks and swords to guns, cameras and smelling salts.
And they managed to do it within the confines of a cane.
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In England during the 17th and 18th century cane owners had to have a license to carry canes. Men picked out walking sticks that matched their costumes the way they choose ties today to match their suits.
With a bit of luck a skilled woodcarver could turn a simple cane into an art object. The secret was in the handle.
Here the carver could show his genius. From dogs, horses and skeletons to presidents and poets, the variety of handles was mind boggling.
The more expensive canes also had their outer surface surrounded by eyelets made of iron, bone, ivory, horn and precious metals to prevent wear-and-tear on the holes.
Gadget canes are still being made today but it’s the old ones that will empty a wallet. Finding one in good condition with all its parts intact is no easy task. More often than not, they’ve been restored with parts from a different era.
Even though there are thousands to choose from, gadget canes fall into a few basic categories. There are the professional canes used by doctors to carry medical supplies.
The piano tuner used a cane for his tuning hammers. The horse auctioneer carried a walking stick that opened and revealed a calibrated rod for measuring a horse’s height.
By using these gadget canes tradesmen could still look like gentlemen and carry their tools in something other than a toolbox.
Next come the city canes. These walking sticks housed everything from opera glasses and smoking pipes to cigarettes and musical instruments. Next are the sword canes. These were some of the most popular gadget canes because they doubled as weapons and hid all types of daggers and arms.
Last are the outdoor canes. These walking sticks concealed fishing equipment, games, contraband, spittoons, buggy whips and bird watching tools.
There was even a cane for practical jokers. One squirted water up someone’s leg when it was pressed against the floor. Another emitted a wolf whistle.
Some gadget canes are so inventive you may own yourself and not even know it. Tapping it against your thigh and listening for a rattle is often the giveaway. If you hear something, pull and twist the handle carefully.
A number of factors go into valuing gadget canes including age, function, rarity, and quality of workmanship.
On Sept. 30, Tradewinds Antiques held their 29th cane auction in Salem, Mass. Here are some current values for vintage gadget canes.
Dagger; carved handle, bearded man with Victorian collar; English, circa 1880; 33 3/4 inches long; $1,064.
Perfume bottle; sterling silver ball-handle snaps open; English, 1910; 34 1/3 inches long; $1,120.
Sword; whale ivory knob; inlaid top; perhaps French; turn of the 19th century; 36 1/4 inches long; $1,568.
Gaming; includes ivory pieces for various games; and letters for word games plus a spinner and chips; English circa 1890; 36 inches long; $4,200.
Trumpet; made entirely of hollow metal; just below handle is protruding earpiece; English, circa 1820; works well; similar cane used by the Duke of Wellington; 35 1/2 inches long; $4,760.
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