When most people think about the humble walking stick, they tend to think of the elderly, or those requiring some help with their mobility. However, a walking stick is a lot more than that. More than merely just an aide to walking, sticks of all kinds have been used throughout history and sometimes for unexpected purposes.
From the time when walking sticks were a fashion accessory, right up to the modern day, the history of the walking stick is a fascinating glimpse into the changing face of humanity.
The Early Days
There’s little doubt that even the earliest humans used some type of stick for whenever walking became a challenge. As soon as we could walk on two legs, there would have been a call for those that needed a little more support. Although the recorded origins of the walking stick only started to appear in the mid-fifteenth century.
It is widely assumed that not only did early humans use them, but they also decorated them. With the addition of stones and hatchets to their walking sticks, early man recognised the value of carrying a 'weapon' with them everywhere they went. The suggestion is that even at the dawn of mankind, the walking stick was as much an accessory and tool as it was a walking aid. Even nowadays, gorillas have been seen to use sticks to help them walk around in the wild!
Of course, the modern walking stick is a far cry from a basic piece of wood.
In ancient Egypt, rulers would be seen with sticks that varied from 90 cm long (3 feet) to 180 cm (6 feet), and they usually had some form of ornamental top. Often, this was a carved piece of metal in the shape of a lotus, or a scarab beetle, both of which were signifiers of a long life.
The walking stick began to be associated with power and prestige, and those that had an ornate stick tended to signify the seniority and importance of a person.
There were various types of stick, and each element carried the weight of social expectation. So, the length of the stick, the material that it was made of, and the designs that it incorporated would often be an indication of a person’s occupation as well as social standing.
Merchants used a different type of walking stick to Pharaohs, and priests had a unique design of their own, too. Walking sticks were such a potent symbol that they were often buried with the owner (a practise that we don’t tend to do these days, even if you have a gorgeous walking stick that uses the latest cutting edge material!).
Many years later, long sticks would have been the first tool of the shepherd, because it not only helped with lengthy walks, but they were also a valuable tool for keeping thieves at bay, or for guiding herd animals.
Travellers, too, would use a stick for protection, as much as for walking.
The Middle Ages
In the 11th century, walking aids were being used in France, especially by the nobility. Women, in particular, would use walking sticks that were handcrafted out of applewood, and Marie Antionette famously used to carry around a shepherd’s crook with her on official occasions.
It was the Catholic Church that upped the ante in the Middle Ages when decorative walking sticks began to become more commonly seen and used.
The church influenced the design of walking sticks thanks to the addition of bishops’ crosiers and crosses, but they also became valuable hiding places. What better place to hide precious jewels and coins than in the length of the walking stick that you always had with you?
It was also around this time that blades started to be hidden inside walking sticks, meaning that users were never without the means to defend themselves.
The 15th century
Seen as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and the early renaissance, the walking stick really came to the fore in the 15th century.
Archaeologists have found numerous examples of ornately carved walking sticks, with many of the carvings portraying significant historical events. It was during Henry VIII’s reign that the first use of the word ‘cane’ was recorded, and it was used to describe any kind of stick that had been made with imported, more exotic wood.
That meaning still gets used today, although it also refers to any walking stick that doesn’t have a curved handle, or a tapered point.
Fun fact – Henry VIII was once arrested for assaulting a constable with his walking cane and was even imprisoned for the night! However, he praised the constable, rather than having him executed, and made an annual donation to the prison for his ‘fellow prisoners’.
The fact that Henry VIII’s walking stick was a vicious, bladed weapon, with a Morningstar at the top and three matchlock pistols, only adds to the oddity (you can still see this walking stick in the Tower of London today).
The 1600s and 1700s
As soon as the 1600s came, walking canes seemed to immediately become the fashion accessory of choice for the discerning gentleman.
Usually, walking canes would simply be another vital accessory that came with a whole range of etiquette rules. In 1702, those rules were officially regulated, and anyone that broke the rules could be shunned by high society. If you didn’t have a license to carry a cane, then it could be taken away from you, and the use of a walking stick was widely considered to be a privilege. A ‘cane license’ had many rules and stipulations, the main ones being:
- No carrying the walking cane under the arm,
- No brandishing the walking stick in the air,
- And no hanging the walking cane on a button.
Failure to follow these rules resulted in you forfeiting your right to carry one! (Crazy, but true!)
The Industrial Revolution
The 17th century saw walking sticks used mostly by Puritans.
Walking sticks became a fashion accessory once again, but they didn’t see widespread use until the boom of the industrial revolution. The revolution changed everything because walking sticks and canes no longer had to be made by hand. Instead, they were mass-produced in thousands, although there were still specialist shops that handmade their sticks and decorated them, too.
Many of the most well-known silversmiths of the day would have a speciality walking cane selection.
Canes and walking sticks were used far more as social signifiers than as mobility aids. They were considered in the same arena as works of art and were often covered with ornate decorations.
Many of the walking canes of this period can still be seen today in some of the most famous collections in the world, including well-known names like Tiffany and Faberge.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, even smaller designers burst into popularity if their walking canes were being used by the ‘right’ people. (Much like today!)
Across the pond, US presidents would often be gifted unique walking sticks and canes, and these were used rather than stored away as collector pieces. If you go to the Smithsonian in America, you can see the gold-handled cane that was a gift to George Washington from Benjamin Franklin, with its unique ‘French Liberty’ cap.
The Practical Accessory
Although it was women who originally started using their walking canes as a handy holder for their perfumes, men weren’t far behind.
Regency England saw men make far greater use of their walking stick – a use far beyond perfume! Weapons, drugs, and alcohol were all hidden in the length of the cane, easily accessible by simply unscrewing, or flipping the top. There were even walking sticks that doubled as muskets, or contained poison darts and fishing rods.
Slowly, the sword lost its status as the must-have accessory for every gentleman, and the simple walking cane replaced it. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the walking cane itself started to fall out of favour and was slowly replaced by the umbrella (although there are still walking sticks that double as a brolly!)
The Shift to Mobility Aid
In a complete reversal, walking canes and sticks once again became a mobility aid during the 19th century. Their appearance became more standardised and basic, and they were no longer seen as a signifier of social status.
In 1931, the French musician and writer, Guilly d'Herbemont, popularised the white cane that was designed originally to be used solely by the blind. She went on to have a lot of success with the idea, and the white cane is still recognised today. However, the fact is that despite the many years of using walking sticks, their use in the first part of the 19th century was something of a reversal. The walking canes of the day were often the wrong height, shape, and weight. They became cumbersome and difficult to use.
Now, however, the walking stick is having a comeback, especially as we have a growing population of elderly citizens who want nothing more than a comfortable walk on an Autumn afternoon. From walking aid to weapon to fashion accessory, and all the way back again, the history of the walking stick is a fascinating glimpse into the changes that the human population has gone through.
Now walking sticks are both practical and elegant. They can be both a fashion accessory and a walking aid. In fact, our range of popular walking sticks from Classic Canes, shows just how beautiful and attractive walking sticks can be. Not only do they help transform the lives of the user, providing them with a level of independent through the walking aid, but also by transforming outfits into something that little bit extra special! We have many customers who choose different walking sticks to match different outfits!
Once you have your perfect walking stick, you can accessorise it with a variety of different items including a walking stick bag (for folding canes), a walking stick clip (to help balance it on the table/worktop) or a walking stick strap in a range of different colours.
And don’t forget, when you have chosen the right stick, do make sure it’s the right height for you so you do not stoop when using it. Check out our guide on how to measure for the correct walking stick height and you’ll be all set to put your best foot forward!