The actual phrase “walking cane” was not in existence until the sixteenth century. Up until then, walking sticks had been used for centuries, originally as an aid for traveling over uneven ground and as a defensive weapon, and gradually as a sign of power, authority and, finally as a symbol for social status.
During the period when they became a fashionable item, walking sticks began to be constructed out of the jointed stems of tropical grasses such as bamboo, cane and rattan. Hence, the term “cane!”
From that time on, walking sticks were also called walking canes. They are now used interchangeably among some people, but the walking stick is associated more with such active pursuits as hiking, whereas the cane is usually for the elderly or for anyone with a prolonged leg injury.
During the late 17th century through the early 20th century, a high quality wooden cane was a crucial accessory for the fashionable man. It told of the wealth and importance of individuals who could afford the silver or gold handle and sleek, hard wood quality. Unique canes in this age were made with animals’ spinal columns, dried animal skin and even glass.
The fashion in the 20th century then curved toward the umbrella as a popular carrying accessory.
Today, collectors love to know the history of walking canes, the story of each individual cane in their prized display. Those especially beloved are the canes with hidden features, such as a sword, camera, tiny picture, liquor bottle to hold a swallow, etc. You can find historical canes with silver, gold, bone, glass, porcelain and other unique substances for the handle.
Ever since human beings have walked upright, long sticks have been used in one way or another for climbing uneven ground and mountainous terrain. Thus, the history of walking sticks has developed right along with humanity itself. In the beginning, walking sticks as we know them today were poles, weapons, supports as well as walking aids, all in one. The word “cane” used for a type of walking stick wasn’t used until the sixteenth century.
Throughout the history of walking sticks, they have evolved from an icon of high social status for men, a sign of authority, to the fashionable accessory in the 17th and 18th century. During the Middle Ages kingly power came to be symbolized by the scepter carried in the right hand, while a second staff or scepter known as the "Hand of Justice" was carried in the left. This scepter was surmounted by a hand in the act of blessing. In France, this custom of investing authority with two scepters dates from about 987 A.D. In England, during the latter part of the twelfth century, two scepters were bestowed upon Richard Coeur de Lion. "
The church also used walking sticks as symbols of authority for its highest officers. For example, the pastoral staff that bestowed upon a bishop an aura of prestige and religious authority. The oldest versions of pastoral staffs were long with crooked handles. Apparently the crook signified the way a bishop draws believers to him, while the pointed end symbolized how he urged on the indifferent.
Both judges and other officers carried walking sticks during this time. As late as the 17th century, all authority figures—kings, priests, judges and military commanders—were represented with some form of walking stick or staff to show the type of power that each possessed.
The general evolvement of walking sticks as an accessory began with the sword. A common item for gentlemen to carry, the sword was gradually replaced by society with walking sticks and/or canes as a symbol of gentility.
In fact, as early as 1702, every gentleman in London was required to have a license to procure the privilege of carrying a walking stick. If he did not abide by certain specific requirements (such as how to hold the walking stick, when to lift it, etc) he would have to give in to the etiquette police, figuratively speaking! Going against the social codes for carrying these highly fashionable and imminent accessories, such as carrying a cane (walking stick) under one’s arm, was considered to be an extreme violation of genteel manners.
Today, walking sticks are mainly used as hiking accoutrements. The history of walking sticks has come a long way, from a social sign of power and authority, to fashion, to an outdoor enthusiast’s right hand man!