I'm the author of three books set in England and France during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; The Spymaster's Lady, My Lord and Spymaster, and my latest that is so recent on the shelves it's still settling down, tucking its edges in, The Forbidden Rose.
I'm here to talk of walking sticks and canes carried by the haut ton of England and France.
English gentlemen, long before Teddy Roosevelt showed up to advise this, walked softly and carried a big stick. Every other portrait shows some nattily dressed fellow with a walking stick pegged jauntily into the ground or a slim baton negligently tucked under the elbow. The dress cane was the quintessential mark of the dandy for three centuries, part fashion accessory, part aid to communication, part weapon.
And I suppose you could always just to lean on it.
Well, what did you do with a cane anyway? Why did you carry one?
I see the cane primarily as a form of self-expression. Just as the fashionable lady wielded her fan in a hundred nuanced gestures, the gentlemen did the same with a thin ebony cane. The wide sweep of emphasis, the tip ground to the carpet in silent disagreement, a bobble of ironic comment, the nob tapped to the lips in farewell. So expressive.
Everybody had his own style. As a writer in 1799 puts it,
"One man walks with a stick close under his arm; another carries it horizontally, poising it by the middle; a third holds it up as a soldier on duty holds up his sword; a fourth bears it on his shoulder, as though it were a log of timber; a fifth twirls it round and round by the hook; a sixth walks with it so that it is up in the air and down on the ground alternately."
The sh aft might be the aforementioned malacca, rosewood or ebony, or the less exotic ash, blackthorn or hazel. Might be ivory or whalebone or, in one notable historical instance, a narwhale tusk. The nob at the top was sometimes beautifully plain, as suited the spare, elegant style of a Regency gentleman. Sometimes it was an object d'art in carved ivory, or figured gold or silver, porcelain or enamel work. The tip that touched the ground, the ferrule, was often brass and decorated very simply.
Here's an ornate gold walking stick nob from 1740. As early as the last half of the Eighteenth Century and all through the long Nineteenth, a gold-topped cane was the mark of the physician. Doubtless the sick were much reassured by this symbol of affluence.
Ladies carried too. They might have a dozen slender canes to suit every outfit and mood. These were particularly pretty, fanciful objects.
In this portrait above, see the fluffy yellow puff near the top? That's a wrist cord that passes through a hole in the shaft, just below the head. This allows the cane to be twirled delicately or hung from the wrist. These cane ribbons or cane strings often had tassels on them. Decorative and useful.
(And that chick in yellow? You can see she's just biding her time till she gets to be a crabby old woman so she can whack people with her cane.)
The secret life of canes.
Toulouse Lautrec, pictured here with his cane, of course, is said to have carried a concealed flask within it, so he would never be without his beloved absinthe. They called these 'tippling canes'. They'd have a little bottle and maybe even a tiny glass for drinking.
Other canes held a spyglass that could be unscrewed and extracted for your viewing pleasure. Hidden compartments within the shaft might contain a couple pair of dice. Why do I suspect such dice would not be entirely honest?
The head of the cane might have a compass embedded in the top -- which seems very useful -- or a telescoping extension to measure the height of horses. Some opened to reveal hidden carvings, amusing or risqué.Women's sticks, (though I'm going to assume at least some of the women were also carrying dice or their favorite tipple,) might carry fans, snuff bottles, or cosmetic holders.
And you got yer musical instruments. Walking-stick instruments were popular in the first half of the nineteenth century, with the whole cane acting as an oboe, recorder or flute.
But . . . for all this gold and silver and precious wood, we are talking about sticks, basically. And men. Men carrying big sticks.
Think weapon. Think canes with attitude.
I must call upon Sherlock Holmes, here. Not so much the recent movie, but the actual canon of his work. Holmes says to Watson,
". . .he was rude enough to set a dog at me. Neither dog nor man liked the look of my stick, however, and the matter fell through. Relations were strained after that . . "
I have no doubt gentlemen carried canes, in part, as defense against the impertinence of man and beast.
Interesting sidelight on the history of the cane: In France, after 1794, in the lull between the chopping off heads and setting out to conquer the rest of Europe, fashionable young Frenchmen -- Incroyables, they were called, because their clothing was 'unbelievable' -- took up carrying canes very different from the elegant, slim walking sticks that came before.
They strolled about the town with heavy, gnarled cudgels. This was part fashion, part political statement, part what you might call . . . subtext. The streets of Paris were enlivened as these Incroyables tracked down and beat the stuffing out of members of the more radical groups responsible for the Terror.
You might say canes became part of the political dialog.
Sword canes? Not just a myth.
How well these 'sword canes' functioned as dueling weapons, with no proper grip or guard, is open to debate. But for an unexpected defense or a blitz attack, a sword cane or hidden dagger cane might have been just the bees knees. This was carrying a concealed weapon, Eighteenth Century style.
Elegant fashion accessory turns, in an instant, to weapon. I like the contrast.
In my book, My Lord and Spymaster, snappy dresser and part-time killer Adrian takes on a gang of toughs, armed with his ebony cane. Now this is a particularly cool cane. The head is a grinning silver skull and the upper end of the cane has been hollowed out and filled with solid lead. It is one of the more persuasive arguments Adrian brings to a dispute.
photocredits and copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, Metropolitan Museum, and Museum of London. Telescope cane Mallett Antiques
If you were to carry a decorative walking stick, what kind would it be? An elegant Eighteenth Century cane with an engraved ivory handle? Folk carving? Something with an ipod hidden inside?