Canes and walking sticksBy Mark Chervenka
Canes and walking sticks
tests for age, authenticity
Browse any mail order gift catalog, wander any antique reproduction warehouse and you'll see a wide variety of new canes and walking sticks. Everything from $10 Asian imports to $500 "executive" gifts. Take your pick of sword canes, folk carved wood or glass-eyed metal cobras.
Then there's the problem of genuinely old bits and chunks and parts and pieces being assembled or "married" into antique canes. A war surplus bayonet is reborn as a sword cane. Small clocks and cigar cutters–welded, glued or bolted–become gadget canes. Add American-sounding names and 19th century dates to painted twigs from Indonesia and you have a folk art presentation cane.
Detecting elaborate fakes of rarities typically found only in specialty cane auctions takes years of study and experience and is best left to cane experts. But with a little study, anyone can recognize most of the mass produced reproductions and typical marriages commonly found in online auctions, local flea markets, tag sales, malls and shows.
"Cane" and "walking stick" are essentially interchangeable when referring to collectible pieces. Rather than constantly repeat both terms, though, only "cane" will be used for the remainder of this article.
Virtually all canes of interest to collectors were originally used as fashion accessories, not for orthopedic purposes. Orthopedic canes–used by the lame or temporarily injured–are rarely of interest to collectors. The only exceptions are unusually decorative pieces or pieces owned by celebrities or historical figures. Unless stated otherwise, any mention of canes in this article refers to collectible canes, not orthopedic devices.
"Fashion accessory" doesn't mean an object purchased simply to be stored in a closet or admired as it sits on a shelf . Canes–like hats, shoes and suits–were meant for daily use. You should expect to find at least some wear on virtually all vintage fashion canes.
Generally speaking, there are three broad categories of collectible canes: gadget (also called system or mechanical), decorative and folk art. Each of these categories is discussed in its own section. Glass canes, political parade canes, advertising and novelty canes are not included in this article because those types of canes were not used primarily as fashion accessories.
Collectible canes can be further subdivided by the shape of the handle (Fig. 5). Although handle shapes are not vital clues to age, correct handle names should be used in cane discussions, sales descriptions and appraisals.
Almost all collectible canes, excepting some folk art pieces, have four basic parts in common: handle, collar, shaft, and ferrule or tip (Fig. 4). How these pieces are assembled, the way the parts were manufactured and the material of which they are made are important clues in determining age and authenticity.
Any cane without a proper ferrule or tip, excepting folk art pieces, is suspect. A ferrule is a hollow metal sleeve fitting over the end of the shaft. Many, but not all, vintage ferrules are bimetal. Bimetal ferrules are usually steel at the point of contact with the ground and surrounded by brass sleeves (Fig. 11) Although you may occasionally find them on modern canes, bimetal ferrules are generally a positive sign of age.
The ends of vintage shafts may also be tipped with a solid plug, commonly horn, but possibly bone, ivory or other material. New horn tips on otherwise old canes have been increasingly common in recent years. Make sure you inspect all ferrules and horn tips for normal wear. If the point of contact shows no sign of normal use or wear, the part could be a replacement or the entire cane may be new.
All vintage ferrules are securely and skillfully attached to the shaft. It is extremely difficult to remove an original ferrule from a vintage shaft by hand. Vintage ferrules and shafts are nearly perfectly aligned (Fig. 14) If the edge of the ferrule is above the surface of the shaft, it may be a warning sign the original ferrule has been replaced or the cane is an inexpensive reproduction.
About half of all reproduction canes have metal ferrules. The great majority of the new metal ferrules are simply glued to the shafts (Fig. 12). Many new metal ferrules are loose on the shaft or twist off with slight effort. Rather than pull off the ferrule to expose the glue, though, you might want to use a black light. New glue around the top of a ferrule will almost always fluoresce.
The balance of most reproduction canes are sold with the simple rubbers caps (Fig. 13) typically found on modern orthopedic canes. These are also usually glued to new shafts. Occasionally, new rubber caps may be found added to a vintage shaft. If it is a genuinely old cane, you should generally find an old ferrule or tip under the new rubber cap. If a rubber cap is glued over raw unfinished wood as shown in Fig. 13, the cane is probably modern.
Vintage canes are almost always well-balanced. They were commonly carried by grasping the upper half of the shaft. Part of your personal style was how you carried and flourished your cane. Even a few misplaced ounces create extraordinary leverage making a cane awkward to hold and tiring to carry. Except for folk canes, which may vary considerably, most canes that seem particularly top heavy, awkward to hold and out of balance are very likely reproductions, not vintage canes.
Vintage canes are generally fairly light in weight, usually about 8 to 12 ounces. Generally, it is unusual for a typical vintage cane to weigh 1 pound or more. By contrast, many new canes, especially those with solid brass gadgets and massive door knob-style handles, often weigh 1½ to 2 pounds. Vintage fashion canes are rarely found in that weight range.
Another easy test for gadget and decorative collectible canes is to gave them a good shake. Although vintage canes were fashion accessories, they were still practical functional objects designed for daily use. They are virtually always sturdy, made of quality materials and are well constructed. New canes made as reproductions to put on display and not for actual use, are generally very poorly constructed. Rattling noises within the shaft, wobbling handle, or a loose awkwardly attached gadget are all warning signs of a reproduction cane.
Finally, most 19th and early 20th century cane manufacturers permanently marked their products. This is true for vintage canes of all price ranges from Tiffany to Sears, Roebuck. Hallmarks and quality marks on plating and precious metals are also generally positive signs of age. Inexpensive reproduction canes from China and Indonesia are virtually never permanently marked with either country of origin or a manufacturer's name. New imports are usually marked with only paper labels. Any piece permanently marked India, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, India or similar country would almost certainly be a modern reproduction. Marks alone, though, should never be used as a sole test of age. Marks are easily forged and marked parts which are genuinely old can be mixed in with or added to new parts and pieces. Conduct a thorough examination of the entire cane before forming a conclusion about age and authenticity.
Gadget canes, also known as system or mechanical canes, have been widely reproduced for years. Such canes include some device, object or mechanism which is usually, but not always, concealed or protected. Examples include canes with swords, guns, flasks, timepieces, cameras, cigarette holders and other practical or novelty items.
The wide variety of original gadget canes makes it difficult to describe a typical vintage piece. When evaluating a gadget cane, it is best to start with ferrules and tips, using the tests previously discussed. If the ferrule or tip is not right, the whole cane is frequently wrong.
Next, be suspicious of highly polished brass. The majority of gadgets and objects on cheap reproduction canes are made of bright solid brass. Although brass was widely used in old gadgets because it did not rust, it was almost always plated, lacquered or painted to conceal the brass content. Generally, the only exposed brass on a vintage gadget would be where the original plating or other surface coating has worn away revealing the brass below. Exposed vintage brass should be tarnished and dull consistent with age and normal wear, not bright and shiny.
You should also pay close attention to how the user gains access to the gadget or device. Catches and latches in vintage gadget canes are virtually always fast and convenient such as push-button spring releases, tight-fitting friction joints or short twisting bayonet-style locks. Many new gadgets open by tediously unscrewing large caps. These bulky threaded caps are virtually unknown on vintage gadget canes. Not only would such caps be slow and inconvenient to open, but separate caps could easily be dropped and damaged, or worse, lost.
Of all canes, sword canes are the most notorious for being rebuilt, repaired, enhanced and assembled from various parts and pieces. The blade is a good place to begin your examination. The great majority of blades found in mass produced reproductions are not marked. If a new blade is marked, the mark is usually China, Taiwan, India or "stainless steel" which are all obviously modern.
As a general rule, finding a manufacturer's name or mark on a blade designating a European, English or American source is usually a positive sign of age. One mark found on vintage blades is Solingen, a German manufacturing region. Better blades may be marked Toledo. Of course these marks don't guarantee a blade is original to the shaft or whether the entire cane was made in the same country where the blade was produced.
The presence of bluing or engraving is also generally an indication of a vintage blade. The great majority of blades in mass produced reproduction sword canes are made of plain undecorated metal. Most blades in inexpensive reproductions are obvious because they show no evidence of normal wear. Their surfaces are blemish free, bright untarnished metal. Vintage blades are rarely without the normal wear and patina associated with age including nicks and minor corrosion.
Buyers should be particularly alert for sword canes assembled from parts and pieces. One of the most common ways to "make" a sword cane is to begin with a genuinely old blade, especially an otherwise worthless broken or damaged blade. An ordinary inexpensive vintage cane is then cut apart below the handle and the shaft drilled out. The damaged blade is then ground and attached to the vintage handle. Another method is to attach the blade to an inexpensive vintage cane which already has a hollow shaft like those which held glass flasks.
An easy test for catching most of these replacement blades is simply measuring the depth of the shaft cavity. In original vintage sword canes, the depth of the shaft cavity should be about the same length as the blade (Fig. 20). This test also catches most original broken blades that have been ground to a new point (Fig. 21). Many of those shortened broken blades are represented as original "dagger canes." As with full-sized sword canes, the shaft depth in original dagger canes will closely match the length of the original dagger blade (Fig. 22).
Engravings and other blade decorations may provide clues a blade has been ground. Decorations rarely extend the entire length of the blade; most were limited to the lower half or third (Fig. 20). A sword cane blade completely filled with decorations may be a sign the blade has been repaired or ground (Fig. 22).
Virtually all release mechanisms on vintage sword canes are instantaneous. Threaded handles requiring complete multiple revolutions to remove the shaft or other slow complicated releases are warning signs of a reproduction or deliberate fake assembled from parts.
Most new decorative canes are figurals. Flip through the catalogs and you can order almost any animal, geometric shape, mythological creature or historical figure one can imagine. Entire theme sets of new canes feature everything from symbols of ancient Egypt to styles based on the 1970s television series about vampires, Dark Shadows.
Decorative canes must meet all the basic tests of age previously discussed. They must have a correct ferrule or tip, be relatively light weight and well balanced, be well made, usually bear a manufactures mark and show normal wear appropriate to their use and represented age.
Original decorative handles are made in a variety of materials and finishes from bone and ivory, wood and glass to cast metals including solid silver and gold plated surfaces. Most decorative metal handles are hollow. The bottom of the handle is carefully crafted to fit tightly over the shaft. There may or may not be a collar below the handle. Unless damaged, vintage handles rarely wobble or rattle on their shafts. The average hand should fit comfortably over or around virtually all vintage handles. Unusually large bulky handles, handles with sharp projections and handles with unnatural contours, are almost always modern "collectors" items, not vintage canes made for daily use where comfort and practicality were essential.
Although many new figural handles are hollow cast metal, many other materials are also being used. Many new handles are now cast resin or plastic finished to imitate metal (Figs. 26-27). Don't assume anything. If you're buying without a hands-on examination, be sure to specifically ask the seller from what material the handle is made.
You never know what you may find fastened on top a cane shaft. Door knobs, new or old, are frequently found attached to shafts (Figs. 28-30). Other than folk art or homemade canes, no period factory or workshop produced vintage canes with door knobs as handles.
Folk Art Canes
The number of reproduction folk art canes in the market is growing rapidly. Cheap hand carved canes from Asia show the same tool marks, irregularities and lack of sophistication collectors usually look for in originals. Some imported canes are occasionally enhanced by adding American place-names such as cities and states, 19th century dates and American fraternal and patriotic symbols and emblems.
You can catch many imports by examining the wood. Traditional American folk art canes are almost always formed from a single piece of wood. There is no seam between the shaft and handle. Grain flows uninterrupted from the shaft into the handle because handles are formed by naturally occurring crotches or forks (Fig. 34). The majority of new folk art canes are made of two separate pieces. Even if the new cane is painted, the joint between handle and shaft is usually visible (Fig. 35).
Ultraviolet light is particularly useful for examining folk art canes. Most paints and stains made before mid-20th century look about the same under long wave ultraviolet light as they appear in visible, or room light. Many stains and paints used since the 1950s, especially those used since the 1980s, generally fluoresce brightly. Recently painted names, dates and other enhancements are also commonly revealed under ultraviolet light.
Recently glued enhancements also fluoresce. The glass eyes of the snake on the cover in Fig. 2, for example, are difficult to date mounted in the head. But bright fluorescence around the eyes indicate they have been recently set with glue. Even if the eyes are genuinely old, the new glue proves the cane has been altered.
Many new folk art canes are sold with rubber tips. In our samples, removing the rubber exposed bare wood. Areas of raw unfinished wood in the tip of the shaft are another warning sign of a new cane.
Vintage gadget canes