A Brief History of Canes Starting with the Dawn of Mankind
Canes and walking sticks have a rich history extending back to the dawn of humankind. Life was scary for early man. Imagine agriculture in its developmental stage, food had to be hunted or gathered. Shelter had to be thought up and created from the rawest of materials. Imagine the worst windstorm you’ve lived through in today’s life, and then imagine what it’d be like in your prehistoric version of a home. Imagine hunting and gathering any distance from your home. A person in this predicament would most likely bring a stick with them for protection, and thus the walking stick was born.
Over the course of man’s rise to the top of the food chain and further, the cane developed many uses and symbolisms. Greek gods and Egyptian rulers are often seen holding long walking sticks; pilgrims and shepherds of the Middle Ages used them to symbolically and literally tend flocks. For royalty, holding a cane or scepter in the left hand symbolized justice; in the right, it symbolized royal dominance (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 2013).
Prior to the French Revolution, Louis XIV outlawed the use of canes for anyone outside of the aristocracy, to preserve its association with power (Jeannin, n.d.). Of course, this was just one of the overreaches that lead to the aforementioned revolution. Still, the cane was always a fascinating item, and one of man’s beloved tools. In the United States, the group of people most associated with canes and walking sticks are the presidents.
History of Canes and U.S. Presidents
According to an article by Richard Park, The National Museum of U.S. History, run by the Smithsonian Institute has a collection of presidential canes. It includes a cane owned by the first president. This particular cane had a gold handle in the shape of a French liberty cap, and was presented to George Washington by Benjamin Franklin; the only man whose signature appears on the three most important documents in the history of the U.S.
One president famous for his cane was the cantankerous (to put it lightly) Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory, as he was known, carried a cane that concealed a sword (1995). He famously beat a would-be assassin nearly to death with it, and probably would’ve had he not ultimately been restrained. Richard Lawrence attempted to fire on President Jackson, but his gun misfired. Jackson was infuriated and attacked the would-be assassin with his cane. The assassin pulled out another gun, but it also misfired. Jackson’s aids subdued the man, possibly saving him from an angry 67-year-old with a cane. Later, after tests confirmed both guns worked fine, the odds of both guns misfiring was calculated to be 125,000 to 1 (History.com, n.d.).
Perhaps one of the coolest stories surrounding a presidential cane was one that was donated by President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, to Frederick Douglass, the famous freed slave and abolitionist. President Lincoln and Douglass met three times during Lincoln’s term. According to Basker, initially, Douglass thought Lincoln’s antislavery stance was more political than anything, but eventually he grew to realize Lincoln was a true abolitionist at heart. Lincoln saw the U.S. in this time as the “home of freedom disenthralled, regenerated, enlarged.”
In a thank you letter to Lincoln’s widow, Douglass said,
“I assure you, that this inestimable menmento of his Excellency will be retained in my possession while I live — an object of sacred interest — a token not merely of the kind Consideration in which I have reason to know that the President was pleased to hold me personally, but of as an indication of the his humane consideration interest [in the] welfare of my whole race (p. 16).”
Warren G. Harding, though not remembered for being a particularly good president, was an avid cane collector. In his short-lived (Harding died in office of natural causes) and scandal-plagued term (remember the Teapot Dome Scandal?), he was famous for carrying a black cane, more because it was the style at the time than anything else. As Park notes, canes were “the exclamation point to a true gentleman’s attire,” (1995).
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(n.d). January 30: This Day In History. History.com. Retrieved 16 April, 2014
Basker, J. G. (2008, February 28). Frederick Douglass remembers Lincoln. New York Amsterdam News. p. 16.
Cane, walking stick. (2013). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 1.
Park, E. (1995). The object at hand. Smithsonian, 26(7), 24.