Walking sticks and canes became popular during the 17th century. At this time, they began replacing swords as a part of a gentleman's wardrobe.
They were also decorative accessories that denoted their wearers' status in society. In 1702, it was considered a privilege to carry a walking stick or cane in London. Men were required to carry a licence, or lose the privilege.
Part of this licence reads: "You are hereby required to permit the bearer of this cane to pass and repass through the streets of London or anyplace ten miles of it without theft or molestation provided that he does not walk with it under his arm, brandish it in the air or hang it on a button in which case it shall be forfeited and I hereby declare it may be forfeited to anyone who shall think it safe to take it from him."
Forfeiting a cane could have proved dangerous as some contained hidden swords. Cane guns, which housed hidden single or double-barrelled shotguns, were also available.
Another novelty were tippling canes, or tipplers, with hidden vials used to carry alcohol. These became especially popular much later during the Prohibition years of the US.
The difference between a walking stick and a cane is the materials of which they are made.
Sticks can be made of ivory, metals, whalebone and assorted woods. Canes are made from bamboo, rattan, Malacca or hardy reeds. Americans, however, usually refer to walking sticks as canes.
The Whanganui Regional Museum has a large collection of sticks and canes with interesting grips made from a many different materials and in many different styles.
One has a concealed umbrella while another has an ivory grip with a scrimshawed image of a Japanese warrior brandishing a sword. One handsome example is made from a dark wood and has a carved elephant head, complete with ivory tusks and inlaid with small ivory dots. The head of William Shakespeare adorns the grip of another ebony stick.
A walking stick, however, does not have to have a fancy handle or be made from expensive materials. The Irish shillelagh or Scottish kebbie are simple knotty sticks, usually made from blackthorn, with a large knob at one end.
A likely branch would be cut from a tree. It was then treated in one of three ways: by covering in butter or lard and putting it up a chimney to cure, by soaking in brine, or by burying in a pile of dung. It was then painted with black paint or even magpie blood (a common wood stain at the time) to give a dark patina.
Originally used for both walking and as a weapon, shillelagh fighting has a long tradition in Ireland and is still practised today, with precise rules.
Today, walking sticks tend to be used to aid walking or for hiking. Some examples are highly prized and sought after by collectors. As a side note, a collector of walking sticks is called a rabologist.
Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at the museum.