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The Object at Hand

There was a time when a cane was the exclamation point to a true gentleman's attire, but canes have also been put to a remarkable range of uses, quite a few antisocial

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In North America, Native Americans have a long association with canes. Woodcarver Bill Cooey of Milton, Florida, himself part Yuchi, cites the plant-ing stick, sharply tipped for sowing seeds, and usually carved with the likeness of a "corn maiden." The shaman's staff, frequently carved with a totem, was a symbol of magical power. By waving it at some obstreperous person, the shaman might visit him with rotten luck or a bad hair day.

There were prayer sticks, medicine sticks, story sticks (with carvings that told a history) and "talking" sticks (passed around at council meetings), a neat conversational device because only the person holding the stick could talk. With a coup stick, a warrior would touch an enemy before killing him, then carve a notch on the shaft. A booger bones stick, its carving as weird as its name, was used to scare off intruders. "Very good to hang on your girl's door when you visited," says Cooey.

Naturally, canes in every society have mostly been made out of wood-most often mahogany, ebony, maple, holly, ash, beech and hickory. The material that has lent its name to the canes created from it is malacca. Malacca is a natural cane that grows strong and straight-making it a perfect walking stick-but it is harder to carve than other woods.

Canes have always been objets d'art, too. American folk artists often carved a snake climbing a cane's shaft, sometimes ending in a snake's-head handle. Perfect for a herpetologist. Naturally carvings are apt to reflect an owner's interests: birds for naturalists, cannon for soldiers, a woman's hand for a great lover, even dice for "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo."

Almost every sturdy material that can be carved or molded has been made into a cane. On long cruises bored whalers often passed the time turning whale bone and teeth into cane handles rich with scrimshaw for the folks back in New Bedford or Nantucket. Some cane materials take your breath away. Human bones, for instance, are found in a few canes owned by Civil War veterans. The ball joint of a femur, it turns out, forms a splendid handle. Other Smithsonian canes include pink and white marble, porcelain, even blown glass— a brittle but classy cane for a showy appearance at the opera. The short horns or tusks of some animals, such as warthogs and hippos, were frequently used as cane handles precisely because they didn't need to be carved.

The commonest curve for a cane is the rounded arc of a shepherd's crook, designed to snag a single sheep from a herd. A narrower, hairpin curve allowed the shepherd to grab the animal by one leg— less traumatic than by the head. This model is known as a "leg cleek," related to "cleek," an old name for a midiron. It resembles a narrowly hooked walking stick.

Sword canes— like the one cantankerous Andrew Jackson wielded— flash through literature and life. Press a button on the shaft and the deadly blade springs from the tip. The Smithsonian has many varieties; one is made from a French bayonet. Naturally it would be prohibited in any state that outlaws the wearing of concealed weapons. Gun canes fired cartridges at the touch of a well-concealed trigger. But Shayt is most intrigued with a weapon known as the "life preserver." It was a club cane. When pulled from its swordlike shaft, a heavy coil of steel whipped back and forth, smashing anything in its way like a superlong blackjack. Crowd protection of another sort was provided in Tudor times by a combined walking stick and pouncet box that released a pleasant fragrance — to neutralize the smell of Elizabethan London.

Really utilitarian canes came along with the 19th century. Canes held microscopes, traveling kits (shaving gear for men and makeup for women), saw blades, pills and medicine, compasses, watches, sundials, and vials known as "nip sticks" — for bootlegged booze. Old-fashioned politics often called for noisy processions: many paraders carried canes with small charges that ignited when the bearer banged the cane on the ground. There were also spitting canes, their heads filled with water, that could squirt a jet of it at the tweak of a lever.

Warren Harding seems to have owned 25 canes, which even in his time probably made him a minor collector. His fancy black cane very likely supported him toward the end, on his last journey, a political tour as far as Alaska that ended with his death in San Francisco in August 1923. If that cane saw Harding's gradual collapse, it probably witnessed more intimate moments. One of the self-indulgent short-term President's peccadillos was his six-year dalliance with pretty Nan Britton. Their trysts, she said, occurred right in the White House, in a small room near Harding's office, "a place," Nan noted, "for hats and coats."

Not to mention canes. It's easy to picture two or three of them hanging there in the dark among the winter chesterfields and summer straw hats. If canes could only talk!

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