#Lookback: Hand Me Down My Walking Cane

A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

The Riverton Museum has a small collection of canes of all shapes and sizes. Canes have a long history of being used as a mobility aid, a ceremonial object, and a fashion accessory. At first, the cane was a utilitarian device used as a walking aid or as a tool for certain professions. Then, the cane transformed into a status symbol used by rulers and religious officials in ceremonies. Later, during the 1600s, a walking cane was integrated into European fashion for the upper class. In the 20th century, the cane returned to being used as a hiking tool, as an orthopedic aid, and as a mobility aid. This article will take you through the brief history of the walking cane.

In the beginning, canes were used by travelers and shepherds as a walking aid when traveling long distances. These long canes were made of bamboo or carved wood and were almost the entire length of a human body. These canes weren’t only used to assist with walking, they were used to help wrangle animals in the herd, and as a weapon to defend against thieves. Shepherd’s staff were also utilized by the blind to assist with mobility by detecting obstacles during travel.

Over time, a walking stick gradually became a symbol of power and strength. Eventually, the walking cane became a symbol of authority and social prestige. Rulers often carried a walking stick or staff. In Egypt, the hieroglyph for “nobleman” and “official” included a depiction of a staff. The staff soon became associated with pharaohs and with specific gods. An example of a staff used by a pharaoh is the ceremonial scepter made of gold and sardonyx, which is a type of stone made from a mix of onyx and sard. This scepter was recovered from the tomb of Khasekhemwy. The pharaoh Khasekhemwy was the last ruler of the Second Dynasty of Egypt. His tomb is in Abydos and is the last royal tomb in that necropolis.

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, rulers carried a scepter in the right hand, which was a symbol of royal power, and a scepter in the left hand was considered a symbol of justice. Also, in the Middle Ages, ceremonial staffs started being used by higher offices in the Catholic Church. The staff held by a Bishop has a hook on the top which symbolized his role as a shepherd to his congregation.   During the Crusades, pilgrims and crusaders used a walking stick with a metal spike on the bottom to stick into steep inclines when traveling to the Holy Land. Also, during the Crusades, this walking stick evolved to be a hollowed-out cane that could hide religious relics and other valuable treasures.

During the 11th century, French fashion had a brief period where applewood walking sticks were included in ladies’ fashion. From the 15th to the 17th century French and English kings were depicted in portraits with an ornate and jeweled cane to symbolize their power and authority. After the 1600s, men began carrying canes as a fashion accessory for the ruling elite. Along with adding a cane to the daily attire, gentlemen developed new etiquette rules. A gentleman carrying a walking stick was expected not to carry it under his arm, never lean on the cane, or bring the cane to visit an important person, such as a king. To break this etiquette was considered a violation of good manners. In 1702, London required men to have a license to carry a walking stick because the use of a cane was considered a privilege. A gentleman had to abide by the rules of etiquette, or he would lose the privilege of carrying a cane.

In the 17th century, many wealthy men were depicted in portraits with a walking stick and a customary sword.  In the 18th century, carrying a sword became less socially acceptable to openly carry a sword. However, upper-class men were still trained in swordsmanship for self-defense. So, a swordstick became a popular fashion accessory carried by gentlemen during the 18th and 19th century.

In America, Native Americans had been using staffs and walking sticks as a part of their traditional ceremonies, as status symbols for tribal leaders, and during different types of dances. One example is a coup stick. A coup stick is something Native American groups used to count coup. Counting coup is done by touching an enemy using some sort of weapon or a hand, touching an enemy’s defensive structures, or stealing an enemy’s weapons or horses. Once a warrior returned, they would recount their coups to the tribe. The coup stick served as a record of the number of successful coups of a warrior. These coups were denoted by carving a notch in the coup stick or by tying feathers to the stick.

After the colonization of the Americas, settlers with wealth brought their jeweled walking sticks with them to the New World. Puritans, however, passed laws outlawing luxuries such as prohibiting adornment on their walking sticks. As a result, typical American citizens carried a stout walking stick when they traveled on foot. In addition, carrying over the European tradition of presenting ceremonial canes to people of authority, many of the first Presidents of the country were given a presentation cane when they entered the office.

Toward the end of the 18th century, less elaborate canes became more popular. The Industrial Revolution brought technological developments and advancement in tools reducing the production costs of canes. Therefore, more people in the middle and lower classes were able to afford the luxury of a walking stick. Also, during this time period, gadget canes were developed. Gadget canes are canes that served a dual purpose. An example of the gadget canes was the swordstick or a cane that concealed a different type of weapon. Professional canes also were a type of gadget cane that concealed various tools of a trade, such as surgical tools, gauze, and medicines for a physician. As the 19th century ended, the use of canes as an accessory also started to dwindle. By the mid-20th century, canes were primarily used by hikers, as a mobility aid, or as an orthopedic aide.

During World War I, the white mobility cane started to be used for soldiers who were blinded. In 1921, James Biggs, a photographer from Bristol, claimed to invent the mobility cane after losing his sight in an accident. He claims he decided to paint his black walking stick white in order to be more visible to motorists. Later, in 1930, the Lion’s Club started a campaign to promote using a white cane for the blind. This campaign was started after a club member saw a blind man attempting to cross a busy street using a black cane. In 1931, Guilly d’Herbemont launched another campaign in France to support the use of white canes by the blind. This campaign was reported in British newspapers, which led to a similar campaign being started by the Rotary Clubs in the United Kingdom. Later in 1932, the National Institute for the Blind started selling white mobility canes, which caused the white cane to become the symbol of blindness.

After World War II, large numbers of blinded soldiers returned from the War. Dr. Richard Hoover developed a white long cane to be used to assist soldiers with their rehabilitation. In addition, the Hoover Method or Touch Cane Technique was developed for the blind. This technique uses a white, lightweight long cane that was moved from side-to-side to increase the area of detection. The cane was tapped to produce an echo, which allowed the blind person to obtain clues about structures around them. This technique allowed the blind to orient themselves to their surroundings.

As a result of the Coronavirus outbreak, the Fremont County Museums have been closed to the public and all upcoming events have been postponed. The staff will be working at each museum continuing to do all the things museums do behind the scenes. Stay tuned for updates to the program schedule at www.fremontcountymuseums.com and for interesting content created by the museum staff during the closure. We very much appreciate your understanding and patience during this difficult time, and we look forward to re-opening the Fremont County Museums as soon as is permissible. Make sure to stop by when the Museums have re-opened to see all the interesting, historical objects that the museums have, including our small collection of walking sticks.

Next up for the Fremont County Museums

Our April Schedule of events and programs are being rescheduled where possible

Stay tuned for updates on our programs. 

Consider supporting The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander or the Riverton Museum with a monetary donation. The museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark. Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.