Cane Contrivances: Unique Inventions for Users

In the 1700 and 1800s cane contrivances were created that showed “considerable ingenuity.” For instance, Parisians were known to have carried a sword cane for many years and leaden canes were trendy everywhere because they be used as a bludgeon. There were also the popular hollow affairs relied on by smugglers to sneak in expensive laces or to avoid paying duties on drugs. Another ingenious cane ignited charcoal placed in a cylindrical wire cage and had an opening to allow the generated gas to escape while pleasantly warming the hand and fingers.

Besides these inventions there was also thirteen other unique and interesting cane contrivances. These included the candlestick cane, cigar lighter cane, match safe cane, drinking cup cane, inkstand and penholder cane, toilet combination cane, mineralogist’s cane, physician’s cane, cigarette mold cane, weed killer cane, revolver cane, walking stick gun cane, snuffbox cane, and spyglass cane.

Of these cane contrivances the candlestick cane was one of the items considered quite practical. It was constructed so that the candle was fixed to the outside of the top of the cane with the handle screwed down over it to hold it in place. This cane was claimed to be useful if you were coming home late at night and needed to light your way or if you had to ascend or descend any darkened stairs.

cane contrivances - candlestick cane

The candlestick cane. Author’s collection.

If a candlestick cane did not produce enough light that was no problem because by the late 1800s an electric light walking stick could illuminate your way doing so with a “very pleasing effect.” According to the Clifton Society newspaper:

“Four cells are placed end to end in a small tube of cardboard and inserted in a hollow cane. The silver wire at one end is connected to one end of the carbon filament of a small incandescent lamp snugly placed at the end of the cane, and a small brass strip or spring is extended upward from the zinc bottom, so as to make contact possible with the other end of the carbon filament. When a bright light is required, pressure on a small push button on the side of the stick closes the circuit and ignites the lamp. The head of the cane is solid silver, which makes a good reflector for the light, and a very thick lens is fitted into the top.”[1]

Warm hands or lit candles were not the only inventions involving canes. The cigar lighter cane was also another useful cane contrivance for nineteenth-century people. This cane contained a hollowed out body that held a metal or copper tube along with a friction metallic rod that formed a piston. The handle also had a small cavity where “German tinder” was placed. The lighter was ignited when the piston was suddenly forced downward, which caused the air in the cylinder to be “violently compressed.” That process then lit the tinder and allowed the user to light his cigar or cigarette.

A match safe cane was also invented. This cane was primarily made for smokers who did not want to carry a box of matches in their pockets or found the cigar lighter cane impractical. The handle of this cane was hollowed out and had a hinged lid with a spring that opened when simple pressure was applied. It was in this hollowed out portion that users placed their matches.

Among the cane contrivances that supposedly came in handy was the drinking cup cane. It formed a part of the luggage that tourists used, although it was also mentioned that they might not find the drinking cup cane all that useful. In this case a collapsible metal cup was placed in the hollowed out portion of the top of the cane and users reached it by pressing on the spring-loaded cover with gentle pressure.

Perhaps the inkstand and penholder cane were more useful among the many cane contrivances. The handle of this cane formed the ink reservoir and when it was unscrewed from the ferrule, the inkstand was supplied. A similar idea of an inkstand and penholder cane was mentioned by John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century English antiquarian and seventeenth century philosopher. In his Life of Thomas Hobbes he stated:

“He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his cane a pen and ink-horn, carried always a note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entered it into his book, or otherwise he might perhaps have lost it.”[2]  

Inkstand and penholder cane. Author’s collection.

The toilet combination cane was another of the cane contrivances considered to be practical in the late 1800s. That was because it included a comb, brush, and mirror that could easily be used by travelers. It was invented by a Mr. Richard Lamb of Norfolk, Virginia who was granted a patent for it on 25 January 1881. He noted:

“This cane will be of great utility to travelers or tourists, and enables them to carry in a cane or umbrella the articles necessary to perform a simple toilet … This improvement may be applied to the handles of umbrellas as well as canes or walking-sticks.”[3]

The toilet combination had a comb and brush in the tubular head of the cane held there by a screw cap, which also offered a convex mirror on the inside.

cane contrivances - toilet combination cane

Toilet combination cane. Authors collection

One of the cane contrivances that was designed for a specific occupation was the mineralogist’s cane. It was divided into three or four compartments inside the hollowed out section of a cane. The first or top compartment included the head and contained the mineralogist’s hammer with the upper part having a hinge that allowed mineralogists to remove or store these hammers. The lower compartments had side doors and permitted the removal or storage of chisels. Furthermore, to keep the chisels secure and prevent them from rattling, springs were attached to the compartment doors to help hold them in place.

Like the mineralogist’s cane, the physician’s cane was likewise designed for a specific occupation. It was to be used to hold all the paraphernalia of the “healing arts” needed by doctors. One patent granted for this type of cane was submitted by a Mr. Milton Osborn of Albion, Michigan in May 1873. One reason he invented the cane was that physicians were known to frequently break vials they carried in their pockets and thus the contents were often ruined or injured.

Milton Osborn’s physician’s cane. Author’s collection.

Osborn’s physician’s cane allowed doctors to safely stow these items away inside a hollowed out cane. The contents could then by secured by a snug fitting handle held in place by a screw thread. Also attached to the handle was a long case that was placed inside the cane’s staff. This case was divided and through a long opening bottles and vials could be placed. The handle could also be hollowed out to thereby provide a spot for doctors to place lancets, scissors, powder knives, bistouries, and other similar pocket instruments. A further description of Osborn’s invention follows:

“This cane-body may also be made in sections, similar to a jointed fish-pole, if desired, or entirely of one piece. A handle, … also cylindrical or hollow, is also provided, which should be furnished with a suitable cap … Within this handle, in the chamber so made by the cap … smaller surgical instruments may be safely carried. A case … on its lower side, to the interior shape of the cane-body, is designed to receive the phials, containing medicines, an opening being left in one side of the case for their insertion. This case may be made of any suitable material, and the opening … for the insertion of the phials may have a cover hinged or otherwise secured to it, if desired. The interior of this case should be provided with partitions … to enable the phials to be held more firmly in place, and to give more rigidity to the case. … The handle should be secured to the case in such a manner that the former may turn a quarter of the Way round. When the cane is laid upon a table, with the handle projecting beyond its edge, this arrangement of the handle will allow it to turn downward without any tendency to partially turn over the cane and allow the phials to drop out of the case.”[4]

The cigarette mold cane was one of the cane contrivances that smokers found particularly convenient. The mold was contained in the top of the cane. Tobacco was placed in a funnel tube and the handle of the cane held the rod that move it through the funnel tube into a paper tube to create a cigarette for smoking.

Another of the interesting cane contrivances was a weed killer cane or walking stick. It was considered highly novel when it appeared in the late 1800s. It consisted of a hollow cane with a brass cylinder that held a weed-killing poison and operated thusly:

“[A]t the lower end is a small spud which when pressed into the weed moves a spring, thereby ejecting a small drop of the fluid into the plant. There is detachable ferrule, which when on makes the whole into a handy walking-stick.”[5]

Another of the handy cane contrivances people found useful was a revolver cane. There were numerous types of these but the one promoted in Scientific America in 1892 had six barrels. The trigger rested “in a cavity formed to that effect, and [could not] be in a position for pulling until the revolver [was] detached from the cane.”[6] That was to prevent any accidental firing of the revolver.

Advertisement in the late 1800s for all sorts of unique cane contrivances. Author’s collection.

The revolver cane was not the only contrivance that could shoot bullets. There was also the walking stick gun cane. This piece of artillery was created from a plain walking stick and had to have arrows lined up for the hammer to discharge the cartridge. It was described in the following manner:

“[The trigger was placed on the underside] of the handle, and … made to obtrude therefrom, the hammer at the same time being lifted by the use of a small lever, about the size of a lead pencil. … this lever itself constituting the ferrule of the cane, in which capacity it prevents the mouth of the barrel from getting clogged up with dirt. To load this cane gun, … put in a new cartridge, push the handle part and the main part of the cane together, and twisted the handle till the two portions are in line.”[7]

Another of these cane guns, 32-100 or 22-100 caliber, had the appearance of being either made from hard rubber or fine ebony. It was claimed to shoot accurately at long distances. One owner of this type of cane gun noted:

“[I] carried one many thousand miles, simply tied with an umbrella by means of a rubber strap. It attracted no attention save when explained, and then it excited the admiration of all who saw it. On one occasion a hawk was shot from the top of a tree over 80 feet high, and sundry birds desired for preserving as specimens, were killed with the shot cartridges.”[8]

Snuff became popular in the mid-1600s and remained fashionable in the mid-1800s. Therefore, snuffbox cane was handy for anyone who used snuff. The Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette reported in 1894 on this cane stating:

“It was formerly the practice among physicians to carry a cane having a hollow head the top of which was gold, pierced with holes like a pepper-box. The top contained a small amount of aromatic powder or snuff, and, on entering a house or room where a disease supposed to be infectious prevailed, the doctor would strike his cane on the floor to agitate the powder, and then apply it to his nose. Hence all the old prints of physicians represent them with canes to their noses.”[9]

Besides the snuffbox cane used by physicians there were several other cane styles created to hold this tobacco. For instance, there was ivory snuff box cane that covered the head of the cane’s handle. The snuff box then unscrewed in the middle. Another snuffbox cane from the 1800s had the handle hollowed out to create a box where snuff could be placed. The lid was then fixed with hinges to allow access.

cane contrivances - snuffbox cane

One type of snuffbox cane. Courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions.

Spyglasses or telescopes were developed in the seventeenth century but greatly improved by 1733 with the development of the achromatic lens. However, these lenses were expensive. That changed when the patent expired in 1722 allowing the price of a spyglass to drop by half. Moreover, because of their usefulness spyglasses were used by both British and American troops to monitor the other’s movements during the American Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte was reported to carry a pocket-size spyglass into some of his battles.

Napoleon Bonaparte holding a spyglass while standing alongside Louis-Alexandre Berthier at the Battle of Marengo. Courtesy of Royal Collection Trust.

With spyglasses being so practical it should be no surprise that the last of the cane contrivances invented was a spyglass cane. It supposedly first appeared around the late 1800s and had a handle that consisted of a tube “provided at its wide extremity with an objective, and in which slides a tube carrying the eyepiece.”[10] Anyone wanting to see something far away could easily lift their cane and look through the eyepiece.

cane contrivances - spyglass cane

Spyglass cane. Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] Clifton Society, September 10, 1891, p. 14.
  • [2] The Cambridge History of English Litterature 7 (Cambridge: University Press, 1922), p. 290.
  • [3] “R. Lamb. I,” U.S. Patent Office, accessed September 23, 2020, https://patents.google.com/patent/US237027.
  • [4] “Improvement in Canes,” U.S. Patent Office, accessed September 23, 2020, https://patents.google.com/patent/US139020.
  • [5] Sporting Gazette, July 22, 1893, p. 933.
  • [6] Scientific America (New York: Munn and Company, 1892), p. 14097.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] American Agriculturists (New York: Orange Judd Company), p. 404.
  • [9] Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette, “The Physician’s Cane,” July 7, 1894, p. 3.
  • [10] Scientific America (New York: Munn and Company, 1892), p. 14098.

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