Walking Sticks or Canes in the 1700 and 1800s

When swords fell out of fashion, walking sticks, sometimes referred to as canes, were substituted. At one point, gentlemen were wearing them “with a string, or a ribbon, dangling upon the fifth button.”[1] However, they were soon removed from the button and converted into nothing more than a switch, which hung around a person’s wrist by a thong. Then “all of a sudden they underwent a monstrous transformation, and … swelled to the thickness of broomsticks, with a nob of prodigious size; as the fashion grew older, they grew taller.”[2] Eventually, the walking sticks, sometimes called Hercules clubs, were four or even five feet high and functioned to support people who had trouble walking, although, it was noted that some people carried the “sticks merely for amusement, or for show, just as others use eye-glasses who are blessed with excellent sight.”[3]

Walking Sticks or Canes

“Walking-Sticks and Round-A-Bouts for the Year 1801” by Thomas Rowlandson. Author’s collection.

Walking sticks also began to be used for other reasons. They functioned as a protective tool sometimes replacing the sword and were used to keep political foes at bay. At some point, the walking sticks were also converted into toys. This occurred after one grandfather allowed his grandchildren to take a cane he no longer used and “stride across it and ride backward and forward to the floor.”[4] To make it even more fun for his grandchildren, he added a whistle, which “gave so much satisfaction to the little ones, that the fashion became general [and people everywhere began converting canes into amusements for children].”[5]

Cane and Clothing of Walter Scott, Public Domain

Cane and clothing of Walter Scott. Public domain.

Walking stick manufacturing became big business by the 1800s, and every country seemed to be manufacturing them. In the latter part of the century, the principal London manufacturer reportedly sold “one hundred and fifty thousand walking-sticks made of English wood, and three hundred and sixty thousand rattans and canes for making the more expensive varieties.[6] But England was not alone in manufacturing the sticks. They were also manufactured in Germany, where rhinoceros or whalebone varieties were claimed to be far superior to those made in other countries. The city of Paris was also involved in walking stick manufacturing, and, in 1847, it was claimed:

“[Paris had] no less than one hundred and sixty-five manufacturers, and nine hundred and sixty-two workpeople employed in making walking sticks and whips.” When it came to pictorial walking sticks, the “little Grand Ducal … State of Hesse [excelled above] all other countries.”[7]

The ink of the pictorial stick was wet when the picture was transferred and afterwards the walking sticks were varnished to preserve the ink transfers. But if there was one city in Europe that was touted as the “walking-stick metropolis” it was Hamburg. There a gentleman known as Herr Meyer was decreed the king of walking stick makers, and, in fact, at least one of his fabulous sticks, “radiating in all its splendour,”[8] was displayed in the Zollverein department at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

A man of fashion in 1800 with his walking stick. Public domain.

Walking sticks were made from a wide variety of materials. Purchasers could find them created from rattan, fennel wood, all sorts of European trees — ash, beech, blackthorn, crab, cherry, maple, orange, and oak — and “ash plants … holly sticks, the poplar shoots, the honeysuckles and the hazels … cross-headed oaks, warted crabs, covered with knobs resembling warts … blackthorn bludgeons, held near the middle when used for attack or defence … [and] sticks of partridge wood.”[9] But it was not just wood or plants that walking sticks were created from as “whalebone, tortoiseshell, ram’s horn, rhinoceros’ horn, gutta percha, shark-spine, narwhal-horn, and [ivory were all used].”[10]The sticks were then “sand-papered … emeried, … rotten-stoned, and … smoothed with fish-fin or fish-skin … stained by liquid dye … and lastly … varnished,”[11] which further morphed them into something almost unrecognizable from their original state. Sometimes the surface was charred, with the charred portions randomly scrapped off, imparting a mottled appearance, and, in America, lithographic transfers decorated their surfaces. External adornments were also added to the sticks and this endless variety of decorative appendages included such things as pearls, gold, silver, sham-gold, sham-silver, ivory, ebony, tortoiseshell, mother o’ pearl, agate, cornelian, jasper, jade, leather, hair, and silk.

Walking stick handles. Courtesy of V&A Museum.

Besides the variety of materials and adornments associated with the sticks, some contained a hidden spot located below the top that was converted into a hollow tube to serve as a receptacle for treasures. For instance, “pilgrims carried relics of saints … crucifixes, or other humbled but cherished treasures.”[12] Such walking sticks also allowed people to easily smuggle contraband because when death was the punishment for taking a living plant out of Greece, one brave soul used a stick to smuggle saffron out of Greece and into England. The same deception was used to introduce the silk-worm.

Other unusual items also appeared inside the hollowedout tubes. When snuff was believed to protect against the plague, physicians carried the aromatic powder in their canes and snorted it wherever they went. One Scottish physician constructed a stick to hold medical supplies. Yet, the walking stick was used for much more:

“[A]nother sagacious personage … enriched society with a walking-stick containing a compass, a mirror, a dressing-case, an inkstand, a telescope, a thermometer, a set of drawing instruments, stationery, and lucifers. [Another] … made a walking-stick … [that acted] as a miniature larder and wine-cellar … [and] another … contrived to pack a way … a useful map of London and a compass.” But the most unusual walking stick contained a battery that when “holding the knob … a shock [was] slightly felt, and by taking a piece of silver or copper in each hand, and touching the knob on each side, the shock [was] greatly increased.”[13]

Incroyables with Their Walking Sticks, Public Domain

Incroyables with their walking sticks. Public domain.

Walking sticks became so fashionable they were carried by everyone. The Parisian incroyables stepped out with them, and, in England, “dandies, fops, exquisites, and beaux of picturesque and courtly ages,”[14] along with the common man and women, carried them.

With all classes and sexes equipped with a walking stick, accidents were bound to happen. One writer noted that the sticks were “very serious subjects of contemplation, because they are too frequently applied to uses for which nature never intended.”[15] Apparently, similar to umbrellas, walking sticks could be dangerous and misfortune occurred unintentionally when people were knocked down, tripped, or poked with them. Those who carried the stick in the eighteenth century were described in this way:

“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 … while a seventh, who really stands in need of its supports, sets it firmly on the earth every second step that he takes, looking narrowly before him, lest inadvertently he should place it on a piece of orange-peel, or other substance of a slippery kind.”[16]

A satirical book of the 1800s, titled Hints to the Bearers of Walking-Sticks and Umbrellas, provided further information on the sticks and noted the proper mode to carry a walking stick so as to avoid accidents, rudeness, or awkwardness when out and about in public. The book also provided a list of “walking stick encroachers” humorously classifying them in this way:

  • The Fencer — he pokes the stick with an awkward flourish between the legs, against the breasts or faces of all he meets.
  • The Twirler — to exhibit an easy nonchalance, he whirls his cane by the ribbon, thong, or leather.
  • The Arguer — in arguing, the head of the stick is used with a force proportionate to the supposed cogency of his position.
  • The Trailer — he indolently drags the stick behind himself wherever he goes and drags at least a yard behind.
  • The Parthian —he carries it in a firm horizontal position, inclining upwards, so that a follower receives the brunt of the cane.
  • The Unicorn — converse to the Parthian, this carrier projects it forward and is a resolute charger as he forces a passageway through the crowd.
  • The Turnstile — the stick is placed under the arm in such a manner that it extends equally behind and in front and inconveniences both those ahead and those behind by taking the rightful portion of at least three men on the pavement.
Cover to Hints to the Bearers of Walking-Sticks and Umbrellas, Public Domain

Cover to “Hints to the Bearers of Walking-Sticks and Umbrellas.” Public domain.


  • [1] London Magazine, Vol. 24, 1755, p. 339.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Mogridge, George, Family Walking Sticks, 1864, p. 14-15.
  • [4] London Magazine, p. 339.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Dickens, Charles, ed., Household Words, Vol. 5, 1852, p. 612.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 612.
  • 8] Ibid.
  • [9] Mogridge, George, p. 14.
  • [10] Dickens, Charles, p. 612. 
  • [11] Ibid., p. 611-612.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 611.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 612.
  • [14] Holliday, Robert Cortes, Walking-sticks Papers, 1918, p. 18-19.
  • [15] The European Magazine and London Review containing Portraits, Views, Biography, Anecdotes, Literature, History, Politics, Arts, Manners, and Amusements of the Age, 1810, p. 50.
  • [16] Half Hours with Old Humphrey, 1799, p. 268-269.

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