A VISUAL HISTORY OF WALKING STICKS AND CANES

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Moss, a joint chairman of London’s Antique Walking Cane Society and an avid collector, surveys the history of the walking sticks and canes—and its ubiquitous spin-off app, the umbrella—and their multifarious guises and functions. Canes, he notes, were a practical necessity for navigating muddy, treacherous pre-modern streets, especially for 18th-century fashionistas wearing high heels and unwieldy wigs. They were also useful for fending off ruffians, whether as a club or as a disguised sword, spear, or gun. Jewel-encrusted scepters were status markers for noblemen, and simpler canes were understated testaments to the tastefulness of the self-made London dandy. Above all, they were art objects, whether gnarled carvings by folk craftsmen, sleek art deco confections, or props in a Fred Astaire dance routine. Moss illustrates all of this history with photos of items in his own collection, which make up the heart of the book. He showcases a bewildering variety of walking sticks and umbrellas: sword-canes, pistol canes, razor-blade canes, canes that squirt water to amuse children (or acid to repel assailants), canes that contain shaving kits, cameras, telescopes, matchboxes, ear trumpets, watches, nutmeg graters, musical instruments, or even surgical instruments for performing circumcisions. His photographs focus on the rich artistry of the handles, including porcelain ones painted with delicate landscapes; ivory and wood handles carved as animals and flowers; erotic carvings of supine maidens; historical busts; macabre carvings of deceased heads in various stages of decay and vermin infestation; and a whimsical carving of a man peering cross-eyed at a wasp on his nose.

This treatise presents its readers with a soup-to-nuts introduction to canes, covering everything from details of construction, materials, and patents to cultural conventions that governed their use. The hundreds of sumptuous full-color images do full justice to the items, and the text curates them well, examining them by genre and period. Moss’ lucid prose features evocative appreciations of both the canes’ aesthetics—“The sculptor has expertly carved the woman’s sinuous hair and body to follow the curve of the handle,” he writes of a handle featuring mermaids, “while her counterpart lies face up on the top of the handle, her exquisitely detailed tail wrapped around the swell”—and their symbolism, noting, for example, that the iconic puppet character Punch’s appeal lies in the fact that he’s “a strange combination of the demon and the buffoon.” Over the course of the book, his shrewd, wide-ranging historical analysis situates canes in their larger social context, as well: “dandyism can be seen as a stand against the levelling of democratic values, often including a nostalgic loyalty to pre-industrial values, such as the ideals of ‘the perfect gentleman’ or ‘the autonomous aristocrat.’ ” Connoisseurs and casual readers with a liking for good-looking fashion accessories will find a great deal of interesting lore and imagery here.

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