The Object at Hand

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

The object at hand is a cane — slender yet strong, gleaming black, its handle widely arched to fit a big hand. The perfect accessory for a man with gracefully silvered hair, strikingly black eyebrows and steely eyes. A man with character in his face. A man who looks as if he should be President of the United States.

Such a man was Warren Gamaliel Harding, owner of the black cane. Unfortunately, it was Harding who gave us the Teapot Dome Scandal, and once blurted out, "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here." But no President more ideally looked the part. "If he had been wearing a toga instead of a double-breasted chesterfield," a biographer once described Harding at his 1921 Inauguration, "he could have stepped on stage in a production of Julius Caesar."

In Harding's time a true gentleman couldn't face dinner without dressing for it, nor step outside without a cane to add what the Smithsonian's David Shayt calls an "exclamation point" to his attire. Shayt specializes in everyday objects, including canes, at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). He admires Harding's black cane and notes that Presidents always used to carry canes, and they still get them as gifts. Since the early days of the Republic, ceremonial canes have been presented to newly elected Presidents. Some of these Presidential canes are now on display at the museum's "Ceremonial Court" exhibit.

Old Hickory himself, President Andrew Jackson — wouldn't you know it — owned a sword cane (perhaps made of hickory), though it was probably another stick that he used to destroy the arrow-straight line originally planned for Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue. The story goes that when asked where the Treasury Building should go, Jackson banged his stick testily on the ground and said, "Build it here!" He was right in the middle of the avenue and they took him literally.

The Smithsonian now has a cane that Ben Franklin bequeathed to George Washington, a splendid stick with a gold-headed handle in the shape of a French liberty cap. A more decorative gold knob adorns another historic cane that the Smithsonian does not have. With it, in 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of proslavery South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of abolitionist Massachusetts almost to death. Sumner took years to recover from the beating; Brooks was expelled from the House and then re-elected. The cane is in Boston, and you can see the dents on its handle.

Walking sticks have been with us since Homo sapiens first hacked off a straight branch, to discourage attack or bop a rival on the head. Those distant ancestors doubtless found sticks helpful as well for pointing out a direction, tracing a diagram in the dirt or prying up a slab of useful flint.

Ever since, though walking sticks have faded in and out of fashion, they have always been put to pretty much the same uses by humankind. The halt and lame still walk with their help. The young and hale still probe their way across mountain streams with hiking staffs, though nobody takes whacks at folk crossing in the other direction, as Robin Hood and Little John once did.

Fashionable people of the early 1920s used to tuck a cane under an arm, wave it cheerily at friends and often whirl it in circles as they strode city sidewalks. The older and less-cheery found canes well suited for angry flourishing. Bostonian lore cherishes the way in which Charles W. Eliot, Harvard's redoubtable president, used to cross busy Beacon Street during rush hour. He'd simply step off the curb and bring the carriage traffic to a clattering, cursing halt with an imperious wave of his cane.

"Can't you picture a very grande dame shaking this one at a rude driver of a hansom cab?" asks David Shayt, fingering a delicate, formal cane with a silver handle, a part of the Smithsonian collection. The Institution has more than 2,000 canes but displays only a dozen or so at any one time. Besides those at NMAH, canes are now on exhibit at the National Museum of American Art and the National Museum of African Art.

African canes tend to bear highly symbolic carvings; they have been traditional badges of power since the ancient dynasties of Egypt. Archaeologists found 130 canes buried with King Tutankhamun, and African canes still sometimes denote the position, purpose, religion and everyday life of their carriers. Early African-American folk artists tended to carve cane handles into heads or faces. Asian canes are often made from bamboo with ivory, mother-of-pearl or mahogany handles, carved to represent monkeys, elephants, birds and lizards.

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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