Canes, or walking sticks, were an essential fashion accessory during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and often served as symbols of wealth, power, and social stature. Affluent gentlemen and well-heeled women frequently owned multiple canes and were seldom seen without a walking stick in hand. Their dress canes were works of art, boasting handles made of precious jewels, intricately carved ivory, inlaid enamel, and hand-painted porcelain. Clever gadget canes had dual purpose or a hidden function, and were used in much the same way as we use a wallet or a purse today.
Women sported canes that held fans, perfume bottles, opera glasses, or even an umbrella, which had obvious appeal on rainy days. Also popular with the ladies was the “vinaigrette” cane – on top of the handle was a small compartment with holes in it, used to hold a cloth or sponge soaked in vinegar. The pungent smell served to distract from the rancid scent of the city streets, as well as to aid a lightheaded woman whose corset was too tight.
Men carried canes that held cigars, cigarettes, even a whiskey flask. Neatly tucked away in their handles were watches and compasses, binoculars and telescopes, and, occasionally, a periscope. Canes with concealed weapons were also very popular – with a twist of a wrist a gentleman could brandish a sharp blade or reveal a hidden gun. Walking sticks could be converted into a tripod, a portable chair, a music stand, and even a musical instrument. And for the professional, there were canes made to carry the tools of their trade: a physician could carry his scalpels and sutures, a field biologist could transport his microscope, and an artist could hide his brushes and paints – all neatly concealed in the handle of a walking stick.
Few collectibles combine ingenuity and beauty with historical significance as spectacularly as walking sticks. Fascinated with the artistry, history, and the stories they tell, the Knohls continue to add to their compilation of canes, which today totals over 500.