Penman for Sunday, September 4, 2022
AS IF I didn’t have enough junk filling up every corner of the house, I’ve lately gone on another collecting binge, for which the only justification I can offer is that, well, it’s age-appropriate.
I’m talking about collecting canes and walking sticks (we’ll use those terms interchangeably for this article, although there are technical differences between them), accessories we now associate with the onset of decrepitude or some other infirmity. I’m not quite there yet—although, at 68, I should need no excuse for carrying a cane, especially for my periodic attacks of gout—but I thought it prudent to prepare now for the inevitable, and acquire artful and functional canes while I’m still sentient enough to know between wood and plastic.
I’m not sure when this newfound diversion began for me. I’d been using the familiar, adjustable metal canes you can buy at drugstores for my gout, which Beng has also leaned on for her arthritis. At some point—as with my other follies—I must have said to myself, “If I’m going to carry this around all day, it might as well be nice. No, forget nice, it might as well be grand!”
And so began my hunt—online, in Japan-surplus shops, and wherever else you can find them—for the perfect cane, which, as soon as you say it, you realize is an impossibility, because the next one is always going to be better, or at least different. That’s just how it is for collectibles, and how my few working fountain pens grew to 400 at one point (now trimmed down to a more modest 150).
To bring some reason into this passion, let’s go back to the utilitarian roots of walking sticks and canes, supposedly in the long sticks or poles that shepherds carried to protect themselves and their flocks from predators like wolves. The same sticks were used as walking aids, to climb up hills and mountains with, as well as for taking measurements. By the 1500s, with the use of cane for the shafts, the word “cane” entered popular usage.
Meanwhile, beyond saving you from a bad fall, these wooden sticks found a new and loftier purpose in the hands of men (and some women) who ruled over vast kingdoms and had to show something for it. They became scepters for emperors, kings, and queens—bishops also took to holding even longer staffs—and as such had to look the part, acquiring embellishments of silver, gold, and precious gemstones. When you had to say something like “Off with his head!”, it seemed more convincing to do it with an upraised stick. Moses, of course, had the most potent rod of all, good for getting water out of rocks and for smiting down the detested Amalekites.
All that pomp and pageantry associated with carrying sticks must have rubbed off on the bourgeoisie, who took to canes as fashion accessories, one more way of showing (or showing off) how prosperous and important one was. Carrying a cane didn’t mean you were lame; to the contrary, it suggested that you wielded power as a bona fide member of the gentry. Genteel ladies had their own versions, some of which had secret compartments for perfumes, combs, fans, and even mirrors; the men liked theirs with swords, knives, and guns—these multipurpose sticks were called “system” canes.
In the London of the 1700s, according to one history of canes, “A gentleman had to procure licenses for the privilege of carrying canes. It was expected that they would abide by certain rules or risk loss of the privilege. The authorities actually policed rules for canes and walking sticks vehemently. It was considered an extreme violation of manners to carry a walking stick under one’s arm, to brandish it in the air, drag it on the ground or to lean on it while standing.”
Thankfully today no such licenses are required, and the etiquette of canes is observed mainly in the breach. Canes are back to being the implements of the sick and the aged, and eyebrows will rise if you appear on the street or in your workplace sporting an antique derby (a popular style with a short wavy handle) or a shillelagh (a cane made from a rough piece of wood with a knob on top).
As a senior, I consider myself exempted from all licenses, excuses, and medical prescriptions in this regard. I collect canes because, like my pens, they’re both tools and works of art, relics from an age of manners and elegance. That they’re out of fashion is an even bigger plus, because it means very few other people want them, and their prices will be reasonable.
The Philippines is a great place to start collecting canes, because we have very fine antique and vintage ones, made of kamagong or some other hardwood, intricately carved with mother-of-pearl inlays. Some others have silver pommels, handles, bands, and ferrules (the metal caps at the tips) and fine repoussé (hammered) work on the silver. Japanese canes often come in bamboo, which can be very expressive at their bent handles.
What I’ve looked for outside of our region are canes from Europe and the US, which employ horn, silver, brass, and other materials for their handles, which can be elaborately carved and decorated with animals, skulls (not my thing), and whatever floats the owner’s boat. Vintage canes can also come with bands or badges that denote provenance, such as the owner’s monogram or his military service. There are many websites online devoted to this hobby, and eBay is always a rich source for canes (new but vintage-style ones made in India can be had for not too much). It’s important, by the way, to trim your canes down to size—your hand should be just resting lightly over the handle beside you—not bent upward or reaching down. I do this myself with a hacksaw, and use one of those rubber plugs sold in True Value for chairs to cap the bare tip.
I’m not waiting for my next bout with gout to enjoy my walking sticks. Having resumed my walks around the UP campus, I’ve found that carrying a cane not only supports me but improves my balance and rhythm (I swing it out in front of me like a pendulum). Beng, who needs them more (and who has her own mini-collection), has also discovered that being a cane-carrying senior has its advantages: people are more courteous, service is faster, and seats miraculously appear. I’ll try that the next time we fly!